Moonlight written by Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney, directed by Barry Jenkins (A24, PASTEL, Plan B Entertainment, R, 111 min)

Starring Mahershala Ali, Alex R. Hibbert, Janelle Monáe, Naomie Harris, Jaden Piner, Ashton Sanders, Jharrel Jerome, Trevante Rhodes, and André Holland.

Life-As-It-Is vs. Life-As-It-Should-Be

As a father, I often think about my son and the life I want him to lead. I constantly fret over what will make him happy and how my parenting can facilitate a path toward flourishing within family, friends, and community.

Looking back the foundations of my upbringing, specifically around my church community, I see the tension between my innate personality and the idealized view of what a person ought to be given the faith tradition.

Even though I don’t claim to be “scarred” from this gap between life-as-it-is and life-as-it-should-be, I can easily see how the inability to live up to an “ideal” might lead to psychological damage. What is one to do when faced with constant failure to live up to a societal subgroups definition of what life should be?

These ramifications extend to the broadest strokes of culture. The popularized view of masculinity might fester toxically for those whom the dominant understanding of masculinity doesn’t mesh with loved experience.

In fact, a recent Vox article expands on this idea. A sociologist studying Google search trends in pornography suggests that cultural expectations around our sexual practices don’t coalesce with the anonymous “truth serum” that is the Google search bar.

Around these deep questions, Moonlight explores the importance of identity.

Little

Set in Miami, Moonlight depicts the life of Little/Chiron/Black (Alex R. Hibbert/Ashton Sanders/Trevante Rhodes) in three acts. Act 1 introduces our character in grade school as he begins to question why all the other boys are beating him up. He meets Juan (Mahershala Ali), a drug dealer with a paternal instinct, and immediately feels drawn to Juan’s magnetic personality.

Seeking to avoid a drug-addicted mother, Little spends his time with character. In these early moments, particularly during an impromptu swim lesson, Little freely discards the masks he always feels required to wear, especially as he begins to question the feelings of attraction he has for other boys.

Chiron and Black

In Act 2, we see Chiron in high school, doing his best as a shy kid to fit in while also aware of his burgeoning sexual desire for men. A sexual encounter and a difficult-to-swallow encounter with bullying leads the viewer to Act 3 where the pain of Black’s upbringing leads him to play the part of tough male as the culture script demands, even as his inner life suffers for being unable to be who he really is.

This deeply empathetic film critiques the social structures that define the ways in which we ought to act. Well written and well performed (Mahershela deserves that Oscar), Moonlight is masterful filmmaking. And personally, it reminds me of the importance of developing identity true to one’s self, no matter the script of dominant culture. I can only hope to lead my son down the path of such awareness.

Verdict: 4.5 out of 5

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