I had a certain amount of anxiety going into Moonlight that the film might slip into a lot of the clichés queer dramas often succumb to. Specifically, I didn’t want to suffer through yet another devastating tragedy where being homosexual meant an automatic death sentence & the audience was made to feel awful about the cruel world we live in that killed the fictional character the film created. A lot of the once-controversial empathy in those narratives has become so stale & so dispiriting at this point, while openly celebratory or even normalized queer narratives remain a rarity in major cinematic releases. As a queer drama set in an impoverished POC community in the South that deals with both drug abuse & childhood bullying, Moonlight had plenty of room to slip into this familiarly dour mediocrity. My anxiety wasn’t entirely off-base, as the film does traffic in a justifiably sad, tragic tone for a large bulk of its runtime, but there’s no honest way to claim that Moonlight is at all a more-of-the-same cliché, queer cinema or otherwise. Director Barry Jenkins delivers something much more wonderfully strange & strangely wonderful than what I could have expected, feared, or hoped for based on the film’s advertising. Moonlight is its own singular experience. It cannot be understood through the trappings of any genre convention.
A large part of what abstracts Moonlight and saves it from dramatic banality is its basic structure as a triptych. Bedsides functioning as a queer narrative about how homosexual desire violently clashes with traditional ideas of black masculinity in the modern world, the film also works as a coming of age & self-acceptance story for a single man who’s forced to navigate & survive that clash. We see Chiron as a child, a teenager, and an adult man. All three stages are portrayed by different actors. All three are devastatingly lonely. All three desperately hang onto the small displays of tenderness & solidarity they can scrape together in a world that considers their very existence an act of violence. Chiron is an amalgamation of varied struggles under social & economic pressures he was born into without asking. As the audience pieces together what these three parts of his life amount to when assembled into an single character, Chiron attempts to make sense of himself in a similar way. A more conventional movie might have been attempted to span his entire life, like in a sap-coated biopic, but instead we get glimpses of thee formative moments, each alternating between tenderness & abuse from minute to minute. Narrowing down Chiron’s life to these temporal snapshots allows us to dive deep into the character instead of casually empathizing from the surface. And the result is not nearly as bleak as I’m making it sound here, I promise.
Jenkins somehow, miraculously finds a way to make this meditation on self-conflict, abuse, loneliness, addiction, and homophobic violence feel like a spiritual revelation, a cathartic release. So much of this hinges on visual abstraction. We sink into Chiron’s dreams. We share in his romantic gaze. Time & sound fall out of sync when life hits him like a ton of bricks, whether positively or negatively. The camera lingers on the beauty of multi-color lights reflected off black skin (perhaps in a nod to the stage play source material In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue). My eyes welled up with tears at various times during Moonlight, but it wasn’t always in disgust with how cruel the world can be to a black, queer man struggling to emulate traditional modes of masculinity. Sometimes it was the slightest, most microscopic physical or emotional displays of support & solidarity that stirred a reaction in me. Barry Jenkins managed to pilot a potentially middling, by the books queer drama away from woe & despair mediocrity into an ultimately life-affirming adoption of Under the Skin levels of visual & aural abstraction. With Moonlight, he sidestepped an infinite number of filmmaking pitfalls to deliver something truly precious, a fascinating work the world is lucky to have seen materialize out of the mist.