As tempting as it may be to draw the inevitable parallels between two of the best coming-of-age stories in the recent years: Moonlight and Boyhood, I think it is unwise to do so. Boyhood was a remarkable cinematic achievement – a heady testament to the filmmakers’ dedication and patience for their craft. The agonizing piecing together of a young boy’s journey was meant to be appreciated as the slice-of-life reality that it depicted on-screen. It felt like a playlist of time capsules chronicling age, wisdom and circumstances. One can be swept away by the magnificence of the realistic film, but, it should be addressed that the film lacked some of the key elements of a complete coming-of-age story that perhaps, Moonlight fulfilled a bit better.
One of my favorite, nay, my favorite book of all time, Catcher in the Rye, is the epitome of a coming-of-age story (in my opinion at least). Having devoured it over the span of a cloudy, sleepless, monsoon night, I lay awake at dawn, longing for my own captivating coming-of-age story, wondering how my own journey into adulthood would pan out. Would it be as tumultuous as Holden Caulfield? Around the same time, mindless teenage comedies such as American Pie and Euro Trip were cajoling the minds of my peers, who found greater interest in the lewd sex-fuelled concerns that inhibit the pubescent mind. Yes, puberty does require one to explore one’s sexuality but for me, the greater challenge lay in figuring out my next moves, my next state-of-being. Who was I going to be when I grew up?
Going back to the movie Moonlight: it is divided into three acts and is truly spectacular. The three chapters are aptly christened after the three names by which the protagonist is referred to during his lifetime: “Little,” “Chiron” and “Black.” In the first act, we are introduced to a slightly under-developed child who is taunted as “Little” by the bullies in his school; during this time, he befriends a sympathetic man named Juan who forms a special bond with him and “moonlights” as his guardian and wise uncle. Dealing with a drug-addled, vacant mother, money issues as well as bullies, Little’s world is creeping with an ever greater dark cloud. Whispers of him being “gay” first crawl and then emerge fully out into the open, causing more trauma. He is deemed to be a “soft” and “sensitive” boy with a “special walk” and thus labeled as “gay.”
That reminded me of a particularly hilarious episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm when Larry meets a young seven-year-old who he judges to be “pre-gay” based on his mannerisms and entertainment preferences (he loves Project Runway and the Wizard of Oz). The boy’s mother is furious at Larry’s claim, chiding him for his insensitive remark; she reckons that her son, an asexual being, has yet to discover his likings and dislikes thus he could not be “gay.” Gay surely meant orienting towards the same-sex and was not the term used to describe one’s mannerisms, right? According to Little’s mother, she too judges her son, based on the way he walks, to be the same and calls him a “faggot” in one fit of rage. Little, confused by the term, asks Juan what the word means, who goes on to inform him that it is a derogatory term for gay people. Little wonders how the others knew that he was one when he didn’t know himself, asking Juan how was he to be sure that he was? Juan replies, one just knows.
Little, befitting his name, is shy and demure who steals surreptitious glances at people he feels an attachment towards, but, at the same time, speaks with weighted words. The young actor who plays Little is articulately nuanced; the way he glances at his only real friend at the playground, Kevin, touching his cheek to check his wound and the way he steals an extra long look at Kevin’s wee-wee as the adolescent boys compare “notes” in a locked room at school, is marvellous. Now, it is this same mannerism that is carried forward in the two older versions of Little by the other actors as well – a feat effortlessly achieved in Boyhood (because the same actor plays the role of the protagonist in different stages of his life) and somehow, it is matched in Moonlight as well.
Little grows up to be known as Chiron by his peers at school who make fun of his tight jeans (instead of the floppy style that is more befitting for young boys in his school). We meet Kevin again, through the longing eyes of Chiron, as he is bragging to his friend about a sexual encounter with his girlfriend. Chiron’s confusion and slight heartbreak are palpable on his face and, somehow, the audience is able to read Chiron’s thoughts fluidly (even though he barely utters a word). He reckons or perhaps wishes that Kevin is wearing an overly macho façade on the exterior as he winces at Kevin’s TMI. He goes on to ask Kevin why he calls him a different name other than Chiron or Little (the one of “Black”) because, in his opinion, normal boys don’t go around giving each other nicknames. Taken aback, Kevin dismisses him and leaves.
As things start to unravel at home with Chiron, he encounters Kevin at the beach one evening and the two engage in a sexual act. The two felt liberated under the moonlight and the calming breeze that blows across their faces that night. In the days following, back in their school, they have to go back to the roles that society defines for them: Chiron plays that of the loner and Kevin as the skirt-chasing heart-throb. The lines that are drawn around them causes them to separate and we fast-forward to the final chapter of the movie about the grown-up Chiron, the chapter titled, Black.
On the outside the protagonist has now become the living embodiment of his once mentor/friend, Juan – the man who had told him the story of his own struggle as a barefoot, homeless black kid from Cuba who would dance in the moonlight, looking blue (because according to an old lady, under the moonlight, black boys looked blue). But, Chiron is still lonely and empty. He adopts the tough exterior or rather the conventional male exterior that he had seen Kevin adopt in his teenage years, going out of his way to maintain a muscular physique, two golden grillz (for his upper and lower jaw both) and a swanky muscle-car to boot. In passing, we learn that as an ex-felon, he has had to resort to selling drugs but despite the money and influence, he sleeps alone in bed. One night, he awakens once again when a call from Kevin stirs up suppressed feelings inside of him. He remembers the young Black that had fallen in love.
Three echoing chapters in his life happen under this symbolic moonlight: the moonlit night he has a sexual encounter with Kevin and his unrequited desire for Kevin is reciprocated, Juan’s moonlight speech and the moonlit night he reconnects with an older Kevin in his sparse apartment.
The haunting background score projects a sense of anxiety on the screen that something terrible is about to happen in the next scene, however, injecting that drama would have run the risk of detracting from a closeted man’s struggle. Thus, things such as incarceration, drug-addled craziness, death and the like are dealt with matter-of-factly – another similarity with Boyhood. Without focusing on them but rather on the consequences of those matters, we can fathom the aftermath of those realities with the additional context of a marginalized man. A modern masterpiece!
Sadia Sarwar is an upcoming author with plenty of opinions and rarefied tastes. Follow me on @sadiamhsarwar.