Watching Moonlight is a deeply personal experience. The focus on the Main Character Throughline, the cinematography, the editing—everything brings you in close and whispers Chiron’s journey of self-actualization. But what really makes the film such an intimate portrayal is the clever omission of a key element of story structure.
My original analysis of this Best Picture—while misguided in its conclusions—sensed this missing piece:
Without an objective point-of-view, the film can only offer a slice-of-life experience. Greater meaning requires objectivity.
Moonlight spends little time in objectivity, yet provides enough to grant meaning. The amount of time spent and intensity of focus indicates Artist’s vision, not Artist’s intent.
IMDB’s description of Liberty City in Moonlight as a “rough neighborhood in Miami” provides the first clue towards the location of this elusive Overall Story Throughline. Stuck in an impoverished state and with little hope, the people of this neighborhood struggle to live from one day to the next (Overall Story Throughline of Situation, Overall Story Concern of the Present). Narratives focused in Situation and the Present often explore the immediate nature of survival—an approach Moonlight clearly takes.
Intolerance and refusal form the foundation for this survival in a world where being drawn to something are not to be trusted (Overall Story Problem of Non-Acceptance, Overall Story Catalyst of Repulsion, and Overall Story Issue of Attraction). The daily doses of drugs, crime, and violence lead one to easily misinterpret advances of affection and justify walls of defensive reactive behavior (Overall Story Symptom of Proaction, Overall Story Response of Reactions).
The focus of Moonlight rests predominantly on Chiron himself. Weighted by Throughline, the Main Character Throughline accounts for almost 75% of the thematic exploration compared to a paltry 3% for the Overall Story Throughline. This weighting accounts for both the deeply personal experience of the film and the inability to quickly and accurately assess the Overall Story Throughline.
Chiron, Little, and Black ask Who am I? (Main Character Concern of Conceiving an Idea). Driven internally to refuse his own true nature, Chiron keeps his head down—but his eyes forward (Main Character Problem of Non-Acceptance, Main Character Unique Ability of Expediency, and Main Character Approach of Be-er). Slowly and methodically trying to figure out where he fits in answers any uncertainty about himself and protects himself against breaking any rules, yet proves to be a course of action that only prolongs deep personal hurt (Main Character Symptom of Certainty, Main Character Issue of Permission, and Main Character Critical Flaw of Strategy).
Thankfully, Chiron runs into two people that influence him to approach life a different way (Main Character Resolve of Changed). Kevin and Juan, while disparate in age and wisdom, both challenge Chiron with examples of standing up for oneself (Influence Character Problem of Protection). Juan won’t let Little refer to himself as a “faggot” and Kevin will do anything to keep anyone from finding out his true nature.
At first glance, these two perspectives may seem to be at odds. Juan appears to say It’s OK to be who you are and Kevin appears to say It’s not OK—keep it a secret. But both come from a standpoint of Protection—of defending yourself and safeguarding against intrusion or attacks. While their actions may veer off in opposite directions, the end result is the same: teaching Chiron a different way (Influence Character Domain of Activity, Influence Character Concern of Learning). Juan selling drugs to Little’s mother in order to take care of him is an action driven by Protection. Kevin punching Chiron in the face and telling him to stay down is an action driven by Protection. Both actions, while separated by both time and intent, impact Chiron’s point-of-view the exact same way.
Kevin’s need to stay cool with the other kids and Juan’s need to take care of himself and his girlfriend may lessen their impact, yet it is their collective refusal to back down that ultimately pushes Chiron over the edge (Influence Character Critical Flaw of Need, Influence Character Resolve of Steadfast).
The heart of every story rests within the Relationship Story Throughline. Here, we find Chiron and Kevin—two men driven towards one another because of an unspoken, yet deeply felt, potential for something more (Relationship Story Problem of Potential). While seen negatively in the Overall Story Throughline, Little’s advances towards young Kevin, and Kevin’s advances towards Chiron on the beach signal apparent problems of being too forward (Relationship Story Symptom of Proaction). Waiting for a response from the other seems to be the only response (Relationship Story Response of Reaction) when that potential still hangs in the air. Doubts of attraction and affection—of whether or not the other is truly drawn in—find resolution with time and second chances (Relationship Story Inhibitor of Attraction, Relationship Story Catalyst of Reappraisal). Their relationship realizes its full potential with the revelation that Kevin was the only one who touched Chiron that way—confirmation for both Kevin and Chiron that they are the only one for each other (Relationship Story Solution of Certainty).
Chiron arriving at Kevin’s place of work brings the two lost souls together. “You’re here now” signals an acceptance of what is there between them—a clear example of surviving against all odds (Story Goal of The Present, Overall Story Solution of Acceptance, Story Outcome of Success). Chiron driving down there and driving the both of them back to Kevin’s apartment sets the stage for Chiron’s ultimate acceptance of himself (Story Driver of Action, Main Character Solution of Acceptance). Resting his head on Kevin’s shoulder answers Who am I? and brings a peaceful resolution to his personal struggle (Story Judgment of Good).
With these dynamics set in place, the missing piece of the narrative stands out in blazing color. Moonlight gives us three Acts of Chiron’s journey: Little, Chiron, and Black. These find correlation in both the Overall Story Throughline and the Main Character Throughline:
The 3rd Signpost in both Throughlines—How Things are Changing in the Overall Story and Conceiving an Idea in the Main Character—fail to show in either Scene or Sequence. Yet they still exist within the context of the narrative: Chiron’s time in prison.
Without an example or indicator of what happened in prison, the film compels the Audience to fill in the blanks with their own experience. Everyone knows what it is like when things are changing and the need to reinvent yourself arises. Completing the story with their own experience makes the Audience an integral part of the film. This, along with the focus on the Main Character Throughline, accounts for the deeply personal feeling of the film. We all become Chiron.
We feel for him. But we don’t learn from him.
An accurate line from my original analysis, yet inaccurate in its original intent. Yes, we feel for Chiron, but don’t learn from him—because we ourselves already held the answer. When faced with the prospect of answering who are we against the shifting tides of progress, personal acceptance is the only acceptable solution.