Warning: This article discusses the last few moments of Moonlight. If you haven't seen the film yet, stop reading.
In the movies, so much is sealed with a kiss. Golden-age Hollywood romances would resolve themselves with a passionate peck before fading to black, while entire plot engines have been built on mismatched lovers finally giving into their passions with a long-anticipated lip-lock. If you're a frequent filmgoer, you're conditioned to want that kiss. To expect it, even. But if you're a gay man hoping to see two male characters express that sort of intimacy in a high-profile film, you know better than to get your hopes up.
That's why I found myself startled twice by Moonlight, the acclaimed new film from director Barry Jenkins. It's adapted from the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney, and it tracks our protagonist Chiron through three distinct phases of his life: as a boy nicknamed "Little" (Alex Hibbert), as a tormented teen (Ashton Sanders), and finally as a wounded adult encased in muscle (Trevante Rhodes).
Chiron spends most of the film wrestling not just with a drug-addicted mother (Naomie Harris) but an emerging, inchoate sense of his own sexuality. The other people in his life are better able to define his difference than the near-silent Chiron: Classmates suspect his homosexuality early on and bully him for it; concerned adults do their best to lay down track for Chiron's own realization; and a fellow student, the popular, promiscuous Kevin (played as a teen by Jharrel Jerome and as an adult by André Holland) gently guides Chiron to a beachside rendezvous where our protagonist has his first significant sexual encounter.
Movies aren't usually afraid to address teenage sexuality — the loss-of-virginity scene is a teen-movie staple — but they still tend to shy away from depicting the first stages of same-sex exploration among young people. Here, Moonlight doesn't flinch. The more experienced Kevin has engineered this nighttime hookup by the ocean, but Chiron knows deep down what he wants, and the two teenagers kiss and fumble with each others' bodies. By the end, they're practically leaning on one another; for a boy with no one he can truly be close to, Kevin's shoulder is a pivotally intimate place for Chiron to rest his head. While the two of them intertwined in that fashion is a powerful image, I appreciated that Moonlight also showed the two boys making out, a cinematic image gay teenagers are often deprived of. Had I watched this movie growing up, that kind of same-sex kiss would have meant everything to me.
I expected a reprise, then, in the film's final act, when an adult Chiron and Kevin — whose teenage bond was severed by bullying — make plans to reunite for one fraught, yearning night. Chiron meets Kevin at the diner the latter works at and there's an immediate connection between the two of them: Kevin tries to coax Chiron into letting his guard down, making a meal for him and effectively employing a jukebox serenade. He even convinces Chiron to come back to his apartment, where they lean up against kitchen walls and face each other like tentative crushes at a junior-high dance. Chiron can't always meet Kevin's gaze but Kevin never wavers, fixing him with big puppy-dog eyes filled with empathy and desire. It's the kind of moment that would be consummated in any other movie with a kiss, and I watched this slow-build scene, I could feel the audience around me hoping for it, too — a rare, communal feeling where so many different types of people still rooted for two men to display romantic affection.
That kiss doesn't come. As the kitchen scene hits its emotional peak and Chiron finally lets Kevin begin to know him, Jenkins cuts to a later moment of the two of them simply holding one another, and the film ends shortly after. Their final moment together is meaningful but chaste, the climactic kiss caught in an ellipsis, if it happened at all.
I was surprised by the exclusion, even as I sensed why Jenkins may have wanted it that way, and I asked the director to clarify his intent in a recent interview. "You normally do get a kiss in this situation," acknowledged Jenkins, who is straight. "But I feel like that wasn't realistic for this character at this moment. I think that these two men don't fall into this happily-ever-after relationship, in any way. I don't think Chiron is now extremely comfortable with his sexuality, and I don't think he's ready for even just a night of physical intimacy."
"I think what that character is looking for, and I think what he arrives at, is that he is okay with allowing himself to want and desire these things," Jenkins continued. "I was looking for the most concrete image possible to show that he would allow someone to show him intimacy. To me, that was a caress, and not an overt sexual experience."
Does a kiss have to be an overt sexual experience? In film, a kiss can mean so many things. I missed you. You're safe now. I'm interested. What do you think of me?
"I think in some ways," Jenkins replied, "a kiss is even more intimate than fucking."
While that might be true in real life, in the movies, a kiss is far more commonplace than fucking — unless it's a kiss between two men. I see it so rarely and I wanted it so badly, though I know, too, that it's not Moonlight's artistic responsibility to give it to me. All the film has to do is be true to its central character; by omitting the kiss, it may do that more effectively. The culture around Chiron wants him to act a certain way, to toughen up and let no one in. The culture around Chiron wouldn't want him to see this kiss, either.
"It's funny, I think there's a certain version of this movie where they go back and they fuck," said Jenkins, who cuts from the scene of Kevin and Chiron together to one final shot of young Little by the beach. "But I knew I wanted to end with that image of the kid. To me, it was about the audience getting to the end and looking Little at the face, realizing that all of this story we've been telling is about this fucking kid. It's about the good and bad possibilities he's had to face and the way the world creates a situation where he's had to become this person. I didn't want to go from an overt moment of sexuality and then look this little kid in the face."
Still, if you wanted that kiss, Jenkins understands.
"It was tricky, man," he admitted. "I will say that we had more footage, and that was the most intensely debated shot. But I didn't want to complete that relationship. I didn't want to say what he was looking for was a kiss. Even if they fuck, I don't think they're gonna get married and build a house. But it's not the first time I've gotten that question, and I suspect it won't be the last."