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Moonlight(2016) – Exploring the Unique Three-Act Structure of a Coming-of-Age Story

“Moonlight,” directed by Barry Jenkins and based on Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” is a cinematic masterpiece that stands out for its unique storytelling and portrayal of a young man’s journey to self-discovery. Released in 2016, the film won the Academy Award for Best Picture and left a lasting impact on audiences and critics alike. One of the film’s distinctive features is its unconventional three-act structure, which diverges from traditional storytelling norms. In this blog post, we’ll delve into the intricate narrative structure of “Moonlight” and explore how it contributes to the depth and resonance of the coming-of-age tale.

Little – Establishing Identity in the Shadows

The first act of “Moonlight” introduces us to the protagonist, Chiron, during his childhood in a rough neighborhood in Miami. Referred to as “Little” due to his diminutive size and quiet demeanor, Chiron grapples with his identity and the challenges of growing up in an environment marked by poverty, drugs, and violence.

The act begins with a group of boys chasing Chiron, highlighting his vulnerability and isolation. This initial encounter sets the stage for the overarching theme of self-discovery and the search for identity. The audience witnesses Chiron’s relationship with Juan, a drug dealer who becomes an unlikely father figure. Juan’s mentorship offers Chiron a glimpse of compassion and acceptance, providing a contrast to his troubled home life with his drug-addicted mother, Paula.

The act concludes with a pivotal moment where Chiron, after being bullied and harassed for his perceived differences, retaliates against his tormentor. This moment of violence serves as a turning point, prompting Juan and Teresa, Juan’s girlfriend, to guide Chiron towards understanding and accepting his own identity.

Chiron – Navigating Adolescence and Love

The second act of “Moonlight” follows Chiron during his teenage years, exploring themes of adolescence, sexuality, and the complexities of relationships. Now referred to by his given name, Chiron grapples with his emerging sexuality and the societal expectations placed upon him.

The act introduces Kevin, Chiron’s childhood friend, who becomes a central figure in Chiron’s journey. Their friendship evolves into a tentative romance, marking a significant step in Chiron’s self-discovery. The complexities of Chiron’s sexual identity are delicately portrayed, challenging traditional norms of masculinity.

The relationship between Chiron and Kevin is the emotional core of the second act. However, it is also marked by betrayal and heartbreak. Kevin succumbs to peer pressure and betrays Chiron, leading to a devastating altercation at school. This event shapes Chiron’s future, leaving scars that linger into adulthood.

Black – Embracing Authenticity and Redemption

The third and final act of “Moonlight” follows Chiron, now known as “Black,” in his adulthood. The hardened exterior he presents to the world conceals the vulnerability and pain he carries from his youth. Despite building a tough exterior and engaging in a life of crime, the wounds of the past persist.

A reunion with Kevin serves as the catalyst for Chiron’s journey towards self-acceptance and redemption. Their meeting reignites buried emotions, leading Chiron to confront the trauma and unresolved issues that have haunted him since his youth. The interaction with Kevin becomes a powerful exploration of forgiveness, healing, and the possibility of rediscovering one’s true self.

The film concludes with Chiron revisiting his roots, returning to the beach where he shared a moment of intimacy with Kevin as a teenager. This cyclical return to the beginning of his journey symbolizes a full circle of self-discovery and acceptance.

Breaking Down the Three-Act Structure

“Moonlight” defies conventional narrative structures by presenting a three-act framework that mirrors the three distinct phases of Chiron’s life. Each act serves as a crucial chapter, capturing a specific period in Chiron’s journey towards self-realization.

Little – Establishing Foundations

  • Introduction to Chiron’s childhood.
  • Formation of his relationship with Juan and Teresa.
  • Initial exploration of identity and self-worth.

Chiron – Navigating Complexity

  • Adolescent years marked by self-discovery.
  • Exploration of Chiron’s emerging sexuality and relationships.
  • Betrayal and heartbreak that shape Chiron’s trajectory.

Black – Embracing Authenticity

  • Adult Chiron’s hardened exterior concealing unresolved pain.
  • Reunion with Kevin as a catalyst for self-acceptance.
  • A journey towards forgiveness, healing, and embracing authenticity.

The brilliance of this structure lies in its ability to capture the essence of Chiron’s evolution over time. By dividing the narrative into three distinct acts, “Moonlight” allows the audience to witness the profound transformation of its protagonist, creating a deeply resonant and emotionally charged cinematic experience.

Themes and Symbolism

“Moonlight” employs rich symbolism and themes that add layers of meaning to its narrative structure. The recurring motif of the moonlight serves as a metaphor for the hidden, unseen aspects of Chiron’s identity. The film suggests that just as the moon’s light reveals new dimensions in the darkness, Chiron’s journey involves uncovering hidden facets of himself.

The ocean, particularly the beach where Chiron shares intimate moments with Kevin, becomes a symbolic space of vulnerability and authenticity. The rhythmic waves mirror the ebb and flow of Chiron’s emotions and the cyclical nature of his journey.

The color palette of the film also plays a crucial role. The use of cool, muted tones in the first two acts gives way to a warmer, more vibrant aesthetic in the third act. This visual shift reflects Chiron’s emotional evolution from a state of repression and confusion to a place of self-acceptance and authenticity.


“Moonlight” stands as a groundbreaking piece of cinema not only for its intimate portrayal of a black, queer coming-of-age story but also for its innovative three-act structure. By eschewing linear storytelling, the film mirrors the complexity and fluidity of identity. Chiron’s journey, divided into distinct acts, allows the audience to witness the profound impact of external influences, personal choices, and the passage of time on an individual’s sense of self.

The film’s success lies in its ability to transcend specific cultural and societal contexts, resonating with audiences on a universal level. “Moonlight” challenges preconceived notions of identity, masculinity, and love, inviting viewers to reflect on their own journeys of self-discovery. In doing so, it leaves an indelible mark on the landscape of cinema, proving that storytelling, when approached with nuance and authenticity, can break new ground and touch the hearts of audiences worldwide.



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