…all the parts of a landscape, so dangerous for the soul, the impossibility of ever finding out where that path you see leads…on a distant slope or in a gap in the trees there would appear, and, as it were, stop for an instant, like air retained in the lungs, a spot so enchanting that it seemed that if one could stop the train and go thither, forever, to you my love…But a thousand beech trunks were already madly leaping by, whirling in a sizzling sun pool, and again the chance for happiness was gone.
— Vladimir Nabakov, Cloud, Castle, Lake
Moonlight takes place in a perpetual now. Though it revisits two men at three points in their lives, roughly a decade apart each time, the actual period is blurred as in memories and dreams. The fashion — the characters drive big broad 1970s cars, wear 1990s do-rags — and the music — a mix of 1970s blaxploitation themes, 1960s girl groups, classical and dirty south hip hop — offer no obvious clue. In Moonlight, as one moment bleeds into the next, it is always now.
We start with the camera lazily dancing around Cuban drug dealer Juan, as he tends to his business on some Miami street corner, before a pack of children flock past him. They are chasing Chiron (known by everyone as Little). Juan decides to help. We could spend a lot of time wondering just why a hardened drug dealer decides to put so much time and feeling into nurturing this mournful-eyed, mute little stranger, whose mother continues to be one of his regular customers.
Juan takes Little in, feeds him, tries to help him understand the slurs other kids hurl at him for being “different”. He takes him to the beach and teaches him to swim. Little perches weightless on the surface of the sea, supported by Juan’s arms, “in the middle of the world”.
The closest Little has to a friend is Kevin, who’s bright and confident. He shoves Chiron and tells him to stand up for himself. They clumsily wrestle. Kevin looks at Chiron impishly. “You funny, man.”
We jump forward to Chiron, now a teenager, looking constantly as though he is gulping back something between a yelp of fear and a sob of pain. He runs into Kevin in the stairs at school, who brags about a sexual conquest; it may be an exaggeration or an out and out lie, but that doesn’t stop it returning to Chiron’s dreams.
Later Chiron wanders to the beach where he bumps into Kevin again. They get stoned and giggle in the cool night air.
“Don’t that breeze feel good as hell?”Kevin says. “Sometimes in the hood you can catch that same breeze, and it’s like everything just stops for a second…everything just gets quiet, you know?”
“It’s like the only thing you can hear is your heartbeat, right?”
With quiet, faltering inevitability, they drift together. Chiron digs his hands into the sand while Kevin knowingly and tenderly brings him to ecstasy, and then, with that same unfussy tenderness, palms the result into the cool clean sand.
The next day, a school bully (who knows Chiron is “different”, but not Kevin) manipulates Kevin into attacking Chiron. With a crowd gathering and egging him on, Kevin, desperate and not knowing what else to do, hits Chiron until he can no longer stand. Chiron’s reprisal (on the bully, not Kevin) has him dragged from school by police.
We know (thought don’t see) that Chiron is chewed up by juvie and we return to him after he has been spat out. Now an adult, going by Black (the nickname Kevin gave him) he has retreated beneath an armour of muscle and grills and taken up Juan’s profession. He has something approaching a reconciliation with his mother, no longer addled by chemical dependency; she can now apologise for how he was raised — neglect when he wasn’t needed, manipulation when he was — and Chiron, even if he can’t accept it, needs to hear it.
Kevin calls. Since they last locked eyes in that school carpark, he’s become a father, has also been locked up, and is working in a diner, amiably waiting for his probation to pass. They meet, and Kevin cooks for Chiron. Kevin is still playful, almost flirtatious, unapologetic and direct. Whatever else has changed, Chiron is as tentatively, fearfully happy to be around him as ever.
Chiron gives Kevin a lift home. When they arrive he gets out of the car and is momentarily lost, staring at the path to the beach, lined in palm trees trembling in the night air. A little further, the surf foams like champagne where the land hits the sea.
The film is about the moments life folds in on itself, the madeleine moments. Few films so perfectly engage the senses, so vividly evoke how the wafts of heat and scents of a meal being prepared, or the whispering crash of the ocean, the blanket of the midday sun or texture of cool nighttime sand through your fingers can snap you back 5 years, 10, 15, to a different you.
This is subtly reinforced by Moonlight’s musical choices. Much of the popular music in the film echos into later songs through sampling — Kendrick Lamar uses the melancholy grandeur of Every N*gga is a Star to open his 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly, and Mos Def utilises the feline pad of One Step Ahead‘s guitar line the way the film uses the longing of it’s string section and lyrics — the way Kevin and Chiron echo through one another’s lives.
At Kevin’s place, they talk and share where their lives have taken them. Chiron confesses he’s experienced no real intimacy since that night on the beach. They are silent for a long time, before sharing a tenative smile. We fade one last time, to Chiron resting his head on Kevin’s shoulder, Kevin’s fingers tracing little pathways through Chiron’s hair. One more still moment, like air retained in the lungs.
Meanwhile, on that beach in the perpetual now, Little Chiron looks over his shoulder. Blue in the moonlight, half turned away from the inexhaustible sea.