Moonlight is the story of the making of a mask.
Though I have no doubt a great deal of effort went into making writer/director Barry Jenkins’ film, its a work that feels absolutely effortless. Moonlight, which chronicles the upbringing of Chiron, a young black man living in Miami, doesn’t feel written or acted or filmed. It feels like a life is being lived and we just happen to be within eyeshot. It’s a work of symbiotic authenticity and subtlety. Because Moonlight chooses to be understated rather than verbose and theatrical it feels real, and because it feels so real it can evoke powerful emotions from the audience without having to resort to verbose theatrics. Its the kind of film that can level emotional blocks with a glance, an important achievement given one of the film’s primary focuses is the face we decide show to the world.
A majority of Moonlight consists of a series of vignettes throughout Chiron’s childhood (portrayed by Alex Hibbert) and adolescence (portrayed by Ashton Sanders). We see him struggle with his home life, with his peers, with his sexuality. The events we are privy to are the raw materials that, over a lifetime, are carefully honed into the adult Chiron we see in the film’s final segment. Watching the adult Chiron (portrayed by Trevante Rhodes) conduct himself is like recognizing a completed puzzle we hadn’t realized was being built right in front of us until it’s finished. That finished product is the mask Chiron wears as an adult, the persona he presents to the world at large in response to all it has presented him with.
To see Chiron as an adult without the context of the rest of the film is to see a dude who probably wouldn’t fail to attract a watchful eye in much of suburban America. But Moonlight frees us, and Chiron, of our snap judgements. Moonlight gives us context for Chiron’s mask. We see his childhood before we see the persona he arrives at and the juxtaposition between the two is jarring, so much so that I heard audience members behind me initially debating whether or not the adult we see even was Chiron when he first appears.
But what first feels like a shocking transition into adulthood can quickly be understood as the perfect levee to hold the tumultuous childhood we’ve been shown at bay. Given only Chiron’s adult persona it would be impossible to accurately extrapolate the events of his life in reverse, but watching the evolution of Chiron chronologically his ultimate destination feels organic, effortless, unscripted, authentic. We’re shown the raw materials life has given Chiron, and we see what he is able to make from them.
Moonlight is a film that fosters empathy in a time where it couldn’t be more important. It left me with an appreciation for the selves we present to the world, for the masks we wear in public and in private. They’re creations, built with great care, with events and interactions and thoughts and feelings only we ourselves are truly privy to, subjected to time and pressure. No matter what they are made of or how aware we are of their construction, our masks make artists of us all.