“Who is you?,” he’s asked pointedly in the climactic scene of Moonlight, the year’s best film to date. “He” is Chiron, a muscular young man in his mid-20s, who’s dubbed both “Little” and “Black” at various points of the film; each iteration of Chiron is played by a different actor, all three of whom manage to suggest that Chiron’s identity—his ability to confront and embrace his identity—is a life-or-death proposition. Moonlight is at once singular and universal: Chiron’s struggle as a gay man in an environment that treats such yearnings with scorn and violence becomes one of the more high-stakes dramas of the year, utterly specific to its lower-class Miami setting. But at its core, Moonlight takes the concept of the bildungsroman to its natural end point in ways that many coming-of-age stories don’t.
The easy comparison for Moonlight is the 2014 Richard Linklater film Boyhood, because both films move its lead characters chronologically, so that the coming of age becomes visually literal; there is not one specific journey these characters embark upon at the end of which they feel more adult or mature or grown. We watch Mason in Boyhood, dropping in on his life on a yearly basis to see where he’s gone and where he’s headed, in a way that allows for the audience to be pleasantly shocked at the growth of the actor playing him. But Moonlight is radically different in its presentation of Chiron. Not only does the character have, essentially, a different-named identity in each section, but the decision to cast three actors as the same person affords a greater shock, a greater jolt. We last see teenage Chiron (Ashton Sanders) at what seems like the lowest point in a life that hasn’t afforded him many joys yet; after a smash-cut to black, the revelation of what Chiron has turned himself into, how he’s grown into his adult body, is jaw-dropping, all the more so because Sanders has been replaced by Trevante Rhodes, an actor whose physical build suggests a much tougher, harder person than the boy we’ve seen, both as Little and as Chiron.
Too often, the coming-of-age film treats the maturation from child to adult as its own, self-contained and typically brief journey with a defined end point. There is the story of the group of teenagers who exist within predefined societal roles but learn more about themselves when spending a day of detention together. And there is the story of the passionate young, self-made journalist who learns about life when he tags along with a ’70s-era rock band on their cross-country tour. And there is the story of the ragtag kids in Maine who look for a dead body in the forest and learn more about themselves in the process. The list goes on, of course, and the fact that The Breakfast Club, Almost Famous, and Stand By Me all focus on specific adventures or events in the lives of its characters to depict how they’re becoming more mature isn’t suggestive of their qualities or lack thereof. But too few coming-of-age films suggest the ambiguity of life beyond what’s depicted on the screen. Even Boyhood, which could function as a fictionalized version of the Up series of documentaries if it wanted to, feels closed-ended in a sense: We have tracked Mason through the entirety of his childhood, leaving him as he enters college with a technically unknown future but the sense that everything is going to be “all right.” He meets a girl, he’s on good terms with his parents even if they’re not together, and there is the overarching suggestion that as unsure as things might have been at earlier parts of his life, Mason’s on the right track to live a life of joy and contentment.
Perhaps it’s because of its structure or its setting or simply the stark reality of his life, but Moonlight never makes Chiron’s own journey feel set or defined in ways that would lead him to joy or contentment. He experiences brief moments of happiness when he’s known as Little (Alex Hibbert); the first scene of the film is one of the more formative moments of the character’s life, when he’s essentially rescued from a group of neighborhood bullies by Juan (Mahershala Ali, excellent in only a few scenes), a local crack dealer who takes pity on him and becomes a surrogate parent. When Juan teaches Little how to swim, it’s one of the first signs of life in a character who is so internal that he is barely willing to string together full sentences lest he get attacked. That’s likely due to his rough home life—his mother (Naomie Harris) is a controlling addict who treats Little as nothing less than her perceived failure as a parent. Little’s other signs of life occur when he’s with what appears to be his only friend, Kevin (Jaden Piner); in an early scene, Kevin, like Juan, tries to instruct Little on how to not get bullied and beat up, but their playful wrestling clearly speaks differently to Little. He’s not unaware of how he’s perceived—at one point, he asks Juan, “What’s a faggot?” and if that vicious slur applies to him—but at such a crucial age, he has no idea how to be anything but himself, and how to be himself without being treated terribly.
The way that Little is treated in the opening section by his peers isn’t nearly as nasty as what happens to him as a teenager; there’s more curiosity than cruelty, as in the scene where Little inadvertently stumbles into a room where Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) and some of the other boys are comparing their genitalia (off-screen). Once the film jumps to show us how Little has become the teenage Chiron, his life feels like an accurate depiction of teenage bullying, not the sanitized kind that’s presented in The Breakfast Club or Stand By Me. He is intensely pursued by Terrel (Patrick Decile), who verbally and physically attacks the gangly Chiron, almost getting more violent the further that Chiron tries to make himself invisible to such torture. He and Kevin remain friendly, the former haunted by dreams of the latter in sexual congress; his genuine identity feels impossible to ignore or hide, even as it marks him as someone in his neighborhood who stands out, who is unwelcome in a sense. The unexpected triangle between Chiron, Terrel, and Kevin bursts open in a scene that feels both inevitable and avoidable. It takes a brutal attack on Chiron for him to finally embrace the advice Kevin and Juan have given him: You have to be hard to scare away your attackers. His hardness against Terrel—in the most shocking scene of the film, and wholly robbed of any visceral pleasure at getting revenge on a bully—backfires on him, as the cops cart him away.
The way Chiron processes that advice manifests completely in the final section, when he’s known as Black. As Black, Chiron has chosen to emulate his original father figure, even though he was once clearly heartbroken at the knowledge that Juan is a drug dealer who has sold product to Chiron’s mother. Chiron/Black mirrors Juan all the way down to the small crown sitting on his car’s dashboard. When we see Black, there’s no question how much he’s taken to heart the idea that he has to be tough to ward off anyone who would do him harm. He taunts one of his subordinates regarding his latest take, in a way that inches very close to turning violent, seeming more like Terrel than anything else. And when Black sees his mother again, now at a drug treatment center, he first puts up a front of arrogance and braggadocio, fronting as much as the gold plates he sports on his teeth. The sequence eventually resolves in tense emotion, with the suggestion that the two of them have finally made peace in spite of her many flaws as a younger woman. The majority of the final part of this triptych, though, focuses on a reunion between Black and Kevin (André Holland), the latter of whom still resides in Miami and is clearly haunted on his own for his part in what happened to Black. (That’s something this film gets right that so many coming-of-age films don’t: an economy of detail in director Barry Jenkins’s script. We know few details beyond what’s alluded to in the dialogue, and what’s alluded to in the dialogue is deliberately light on exposition. We don’t need to know full details of what happened to Chiron as a teenager, how long he’s incarcerated for, etc. We know what we need to inform us of his slow maturity.) The two men meet in the diner where Kevin works; instantly, the persona Black has cultivated in the intervening period of time—almost a decade—washes away to reveal the still-nervous and internal boy we met at the beginning of the film.
Moonlight does not end grimly—both men come clean about a number of incidents in their lives, specifically the moment as teenagers when they acted upon their mutual attraction. But it doesn’t end so much as drift off, the suggestion being clear: Chiron has finally alighted upon his true identity instead of denying it, but his life has not ended. Most of the time, when we leave characters in coming-of-age stories, there is a sense of totality, of completeness. The kids in the Breakfast Club come together and unite, an example of their growth; Mason leaves behind his childhood a more confident person; young William walks away from his time with Stillwater as a battle-hardened journalist. But the sense that their lives’ most important moments have been captured in these stories, and nowhere else, is unavoidable. Moonlight, by its very structure, suggests that Chiron has only begun to reconcile with who he truly is; he has been put through genuine trials by fire and is only beginning to understand what that makes him now. Chiron comes of age at the end of Moonlight, yet with a sense that the road in front of him is as unknowable as the road behind him was.