Moonlight - if you've been living under a rock for the past year or so - is the story of a young black man named Chiron. It is told in three parts, each named after one of his alter egos. Part one is what everyone calls him as a child, "Little". Part two is his given name, when he's a teenager, and part three is the name he adopts for himself as an adult, "Black". Identity and perception are the twin strands that run through each of Moonlight's three parts, and Chiron's story is mirrored in that of his childhood friend Kevin.
Kevin and Chiron are two halves of the same coin - Chiron is an introvert, Kevin is an extrovert; Chiron is unsure of himself, Kevin is very self-possessed; Kevin is an optimist, Chiron is more of a pessimist. Kevin innately understands how others perceive him and how important that is, Chiron doesn't really, partly because he's so unsure of himself and who he is. Chiron needs Kevin. And Kevin doesn't realize how much he needs Chiron. It's interesting, though embedded in the very nature of the piece, that we are always more sure of who Chiron is than who Kevin is, even though Kevin is ostensibly more sure than Chiron. Is Kevin gay? Bisexual? Or straight-but-open-to-experimentation? It's completely open to interpretation.
Not that any of this necessarily matters when it comes time to picking my best shot. But there's such a surefit of potential best shots in Moonlight that I don't even know where to begin. I mean, right from the beginning, cinematographer James Laxton does an incredible job of putting us right into the mindset of Little Chiron:
As his tormentors rage outside, the camera bobs and weaves around Little in the darkened room of the abandoned crack den in which he's hiding, making the space seem about to cave in on him. Little feels cornered, not just in the moment, but in his life in general. He has no place to run, nowhere to go when everything comes crashing down around him, as he's sure it's going to.
Each of the three sections of Moonlight contains at least one perfect scene. In the first part, that's the "middle of the world" scene, where drug dealer Juan, who's fast becoming Chiron's surrogate father, teaches him how to swim.
It's a perfect image, because of how it reinforces Chiron's independence: Swimming is a solitary act, especially after the person teaching you how to stay afloat lets you go. And in telling Chiron that when he's alone on the water, he's "in the middle of the world", Juan is telling Chiron that Chiron himself is the middle of the world - that he's the only thing that matters. All he needs is himself and the water.
And sure enough, in the second part of the film, when Chiron is feeling particularly down, he heads for the beach. And you can hardly blame him, when his school practically swallows him whole:
And of course, it's there, on the beach, that we get another perfect scene, as Kevin and Chiron smoke some weed, kiss, and...
...I trust that's all I have to say, right? That one image pretty much sums it all up, right?
But in all this talk about Chiron, let's not forget that this is just as much a story about his mother, Paula. Paula seems like a decent parent when we first meet her - she's tough, and wary of Juan, but clearly cares for and worries about Chiron. But it's slowly revealed that she's a drug addict, and puts her needs before those of her son, for whom she has some less than motherly feelings. But, despite all of that, she's blood, the one person Chiron can't shut himself out from, the person he will always have to answer for. And we're reminded of that in the most horrifying way:
|"I'm your mama, ain't I?" - Silver Medal|
The third section's perfect scene lasts for most of its entire length: The reunion of Chiron and Kevin after about a decade or so, in a diner where Kevin is working as a cook. He also happens to look like this:
Soooooooo.... yeah, Chiron doesn't really stand a chance, no matter how many defensive walls he's built up over the years.
I really can't say enough about how freaking amazing this scene is. It's a perfect little one-act play unto itself, one in which lingering gazes and interrupted conversations take on the rhythms of a thriller in the most incredible way.
But in selecting the film's best shot, I had to do the obvious thing that I HATE doing, and choose this, the very last shot, which also happens to be the title shot:
Coming as it does after Chiron and Kevin have gotten back together, after Chiron has made his long-overdue declaration to Kevin, after he has finally admitted out loud, to himself and someone else, who he really is, this flashback to Little Chiron is just LOADED. It's a callback to a story Juan tells about his childhood in Cuba (an old woman said to him, "in moonlight, black boys look blue - you're blue!" to which Chiron asks if Juan's name is blue), and a reminder of who Chiron was when he started on this journey. But it's also a direct address to the audience: This boy could be anyone. You could know this boy. And when he is lost and alone, he could turn to you for guidance. What kind of person are you going to be when he does? Are you going to let him struggle to come to grips with himself all on his own, or are you going to offer him the love and support he needs to accept himself? Will you accept him, or will you turn him away?
This final shot is packed with meaning, offering a beautiful end, but not an easy one. It's perfect.