A Psychological Case Study of the Film Moonlight

"At some point, you gotta decide for yourself who you gonna be. Can't let nobody make that decision for you." - Juan


*SPOILER ALERT – What follows is a summary and in-depth psychological analysis of the movie Moonlight.

You would be forgiven for thinking that sexuality was some esoteric discipline in the sciences of the mind, but nothing could be further from the truth. Scratch beneath the surface and the issue of sexuality goes straight to the most fundamental question of human existence: what makes us who we are? When you understand this, it’s no wonder that sexuality and gender issues are the centre of the bullseye in an ideological debate that is currently raging in modern western societies: to the right is biological determinism, explaining differences between individuals as a consequence of their genetic makeup, making identity immutable; to the left is social constructivism, explaining differences between people as a consequence of culture and social structures, making identity malleable. It is essentially the well know debate of nature vs nurture. In this article, I attempt to look deeper into this debate by conducting a case study of a fictional character, Chiron, from the movie Moonlight (2016). Drawing off our current understanding of the literature on sexuality and development, I consider the main factors that shape Chiron’s identity and contemplate if this fictional case study can add any more light on the nature/nurture debate, before ending on a final thought.

The Case of Chiron

We first meet Chiron as a young boy (7 or 8 years old) living in an impoverished black area of Miami. Throughout this chapter of his life, Chiron is passive, saying little and mostly fending for himself while his mother manages a drug habit. Neglected by his mother and ostracized by his friends, the only seemingly positive in his life is a relationship with a local drug dealer, Juan, who takes an interest in Chiron. Juan feeds him, gives him money, and teaches him how to swim. Juan also takes Chiron to the home he shares with his girlfriend, Teresa, providing him with the supportive environment he lacks with his mother, and it is here where the mostly silent Chiron speaks. What little he does say, conveys volumes to the forces battling it out inside him: "What’s a faggot?”, “Am I a faggot?” and “My mom does drugs”, “You sell drugs”.

We next meet Chiron as a teenager, still mainly passive in his environment he manages his daily concerns of being bullied and interacting with his mother who has slid further into her addiction. The father figure of his youth, Juan, is dead, however, Chiron still returns regularly to visit with Teresa who continues to provide Chiron with the stable home environment he lacks. During this period of his life, Chiron has a sexual experience on a beach with a male childhood friend, Kevin. However, the day after in school Kevin violently attacks Chiron when pressured to do so by Chiron’s bullies. After submerging his face in ice-water to treat his injuries, Chiron returns to school and violently attacks his main tormentor, Azu.

We then meet Chiron at least a decade later and he’s almost unrecognizable: muscle-bound and sporting a gold grill on his teeth. His appearance bears striking similarities to Juan: from the car he drives down to the hat he wears. We learn that Chiron moved to Atlanta, Georgia after the attack on Azu, and has become a mid-level drug dealer, again like Juan. Still submerging his face every morning in ice-water, his life is interrupted by an unexpected phone call from his childhood friend, Kevin, prompting a return to Miami to meet him. Kevin, surprised at Chiron’s appearance, questions the person Chiron has become. Before the night is over, Chiron reveals to Kevin that he was his first and only sexual encounter and the film ends with them in an intimate embrace.

Chiron’s Life as Seen through the Literature on Identity and Development

Much is made of the role of parents and caregivers in the younger years of a child’s life. In many cases, the role of parents is placed front and centre as a determining factor in children's identity (Pinker, 2002, pg. 382). Taking this hypothesis one would look carefully at Chiron’s mother and the lack of support and care she gave him, along with his absent father, as large factors in the confusion he clearly has around his identity. But, the literature that examines the differences in children doesn’t bear out the truth that parents are a determining factor. At best, studies show that parenting may account for 10 percent of the variance between children (Pinker, 2002, pg. 387), while other theories place a much larger significance on the role of the child’s peers, "Children do not spend their waking hours trying to become better and better approximations of adults. They strive to be better and better children, ones that function well in their own society. It is this crucible that our personalities are formed." (Pinker, 2002, pg.390).

This parallels with Erik Erikson’s eight stages of development model (Erikson, 2014). Erikson proposed that individuals go through eight stages in life, with the lessons of each stage having an impact on the proceeding stages. When we first meet Chiron he is in stage four, Industry vs Inferiority. For Erikson, stage four is the beginning of the child pushing out into the world of his peers and the forming of an identity within that group (Erikson, 2014, pg. 233). But in Chiron’s case, the messages he gets from his peers set him out from his group. They tease him and call him “little”, pushing him towards inferiority rather than identity.

Chiron is a boy trying to figure out his place in the world. With no place for him with his peers and no place for him at home, the only safe haven he has is with Juan and Teresa, and therefore the only place in which the mostly silent Chiron can attempt to settle the confusion around his identity and his place in the world. Unfortunately for Chiron, this safe-haven ends disappointment. Although Teresa and Juan treat Chiron without judgement or criticism, Chiron eventually learns of Juan’s place in his world, as the drug dealer that supplies his mom, a moment which has particular significance later on in his life.

When we next meet Chiron he is a teenager in stage five of Erikson’s model, identity vs role confusion. In this stage, the individual is in transition between youth and adulthood. Trying to consolidate the lessons of the previous stages, and create an identity that will take them into adulthood, the individual becomes even more concerned with what they appear to be to others (Erikson, 2014, pg. 235). But crucially, the adolescence stage is coupled with a number of significant changes, not just physically but cognitively. On a cognitive level, an individual's thoughts and reasoning become unshackled from what they can interact with in the physical world, allowing, for the first time, abstract and hypothetical reasoning (Piaget, 2008). This is significant because unconstrained by the real world, the individual opens up to the world of potentiality, and all the possible things they and their future could be. This new type of thinking allows the individual to play freely with different identities, however, puberty also brings the development of libido and with it the attempt to integrate their forming identity with their desires (Erikson, 2014, pg.235).

For Chiron, he carries with him the confusion inherited from the previous stage and much in the same way of his childhood, he remains passive in his environment, again bullied by his peers and neglected by his mother, he is a person seemingly with no place in his society and culture, that is until he has a sexual moment with his friend Kevin on a beach. Unfortunately for Chiron, Kevin, who is subject to the same forces of conformity, attacks Chiron when pressured from his peers. At this point, Chiron becomes no longer passive and makes a choice to become the aggressor.

It is at this turning point that Chiron can be said to choose an identity. Erikson states that in stage five the individual is “ever ready to install lasting idols and ideals as guardians of a final identity.” (Erikson, 2014, pg. 235). Attacked by the one person who may have helped him realise another part of himself, Chiron fully embodies an identity by imitating his former father figure, Juan. There is significance to be drawn here, for it may not be surprising that Chiron took on a life of crime considering the environment he grew up in, but the similarities go beyond that. He dresses like Juan, drives a similar car with the same paraphernalia, even his facial expressions are similar. In their book, Why People Get Ill, Leader and Corfield outline a type of identification that happens when a significant relationship is questioned or broken, “the child will frequently identify with the point of change...It is as if they are caught in the moment a rhythm is broken.” (Leader and Corfield, 2008, pg.190). This over-identification was passed onto Chiron when he learnt of Juan’s place in his world (the drug dealer supplying his mom), a moment of significant disappointment in the only father figure he had. Although the identification with Juan didn’t happen at that moment, it wasn’t until another turning point, the assault by Kevin, that Chiron identity was sealed.

However, not sealed entirely. There a sense in the last chapter of Chiron’s life that his current identity is not an easy fit. As a young adult, we find Chiron submerging his face in ice water each morning in the same manner as he did after his assault by Kevin and before he became the aggressor. Why does he still do this? It is not to ease the pain of injuries that have long since healed. Is he continually reminding himself of what he must do in order to fit into his world? And this isn't the only ritualistic behaviour he displays, he also spends time holding his face in front of his open freezer. Again, why? Is he remembering the cool air breeze of the beach? The beach, where, as a child, Juan thought him to swim and in the act, gave him something he had nowhere else, a supportive relationship, “hey man, I promise you, I’m not going to let you go. I got you”; the beach, where, as a teenager, Kevin validates his sexual desires and, in the act, accepts Chiron as he is, “I’m sorry” says Chiron, “What have you got to be sorry for”, responds Kevin.

Continuing with Erikson's development model, the last chapter of Chiron’s life depicted is the stage of intimacy vs isolation, with the individual taking his identity inherited from the previous stages and fusing it with others. If that can’t be done, then the individual will avoid any commitment to intimacy and instead slip into isolation (Erikson, 2014, pg.237). Tragically for Chiron, we learn in the final moment of the film that his experience with Kevin on the beach was the only time Chiron allowed his sexual desires to be expressed. Let’s not discount this choice without highlighting its consequential effects. It is not just that Chiron denies himself sexual gratification, which is far too narrow view of what sexuality is. The late great writer and public intellectual, Christopher Hitchens, said it best when in one of his debates he spoke of homosexuality not as whom you choose to have sex with, but whom you choose to love (Iqsquared, 2015). And in denying his sexuality, Chiron is denying himself, love.

Nature vs Nurture

Can Chiron’s case bring any more light to the nature vs nurture debate? In many cases, the debate itself is flawed as it assumes one or the other. And although there will always be those that occupy the fringes, the literature (which is far from complete) paints a person forming from both. In Chiron’s case one cannot deny the role his culture had on his development. Adam Phillips wrote in his book, Going Sane, about the inner tension of sexual desire as “something that is irresistible that apparently needs to be resisted.” (Phillips, 2007, pg.118). This may be true for all individuals, but in Chiron’s case growing up in a masculine dominant culture, where the strong man is king, he must repress his sexuality or risk further hurt. His choice to become Juan, although it exacts a huge cost on his life, protects Chiron from further pain, and surely is a consequence of his environment.

But, that doesn’t mean that the environment is everything. The literature that looks closely at the differences in individuals shows that there is another force driving in us, something that is not handed down by our environment (Pinker, 2002), and in Chiron’s case despite his decision to repress his sexuality, despite growing up in a society that would ridicule him for it, despite the hurt he suffered at the hands of the object of his desire, his sexuality looks for expression nevertheless.

The great psychoanalysts and proponent of the subconscious Carl Jung theorised that in every person are great forces that stretch back millions of years. These forces are what Jung called archetypes: universal traits and characteristics that could transcend time, geography, and culture. A sort of blueprint from which we begin and as we experience the world this blueprint is shaped and modified into a unique individual (Stevens, 2009).

Jung lamented in his writings that in his time the modern man was distancing himself from what he called his million-year-old ancestor, and essentially ignoring the forces from within, where for Jung, lay great wisdom and self-discovery that could help direct one’s life (Jung, 2009). Others have commented on this problem also, Salecl, in his book, Choice, comments how modern society has made everything, even the contents of your mind, a matter of choice (Salecl, 2011, pg. 22), and the anxiety and stress this mindset induces when your thoughts don't quite conform. Remember the belief above that a child’s development is in large part the result of parenting. Consider all the books that advise parents on exactly how to interact with their kids, in the belief that this will make the difference in their development and identity, and guilt and shame it promotes in parents if the child doesn’t grow up the way they or society defines as “good” when it would seem that what parents do may account for very little.

But, let’s not fall back into the either/or debate. It’s not that choice doesn’t matter, any more than the subconscious doesn’t matter, it’s that problems can occur when you ignore one at the expense of the other.  For Chiron he took on an identity that would keep him safe from the harm and disappointment he experienced as a child, but in doing so he repressed another part of himself which subsequently harmed him in other ways.

Final Thought

Regardless of whether the movie Moonlight is an effective case study to further explore psychological issues on sexuality and identity, it is a movie that shows, in a visceral and emotional way, the difficulty of someone struggling with their sexuality and identity. To watch Moonlight is to be transported into the life of someone who doesn't easily fit into their society and environment, taking us through the tragic consequences that that can have on an individual.

Nature vs Nurture, biological determinism vs social constructivism, these are esoteric debates that will rage on. But what does it really mean to an individual where the truth of this age-old debate lies? We all still have to attempt to shape our future based on what we want and whom we would like to be. For me, Jung said it best, “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” What this says to me, is that the ultimate project of life is to become more aware of ourselves and the life we inhabit, so that we can make choices, as free as they can be from the environmental and biological factors that impact on us.


Barry, J. (Director). (2016). Moonlight[Motion picture on DVD]. USA: A24 Plan B Entertainment.

Erikson, E. H. (2014). Childhood and society. London: Vintage Digital.

Jung, C. G., Dell, W. S., & Baynes, C. F. (2009). Modern man in search of a soul. London: Routledge.

Leader, D., & Corfield, D. (2008). Why people get ill: Exploring the mind-body connection. New York: Pegasus Books.

Piaget, J. (2008). Intellectual Evolution from Adolescence to Adulthood. Human Development, 51(1), 40-47. doi:10.1159/000112531

Phillips, A. (2007). Going sane. New York: Harper Perennial.

Pinker, S. (2002). The blank slate: The denial of human nature in modern intellectual life. New York: Viking Penguin.

Salecl, R. (2011). Choice. London: Profile.

Stevens, A., & Rosen, D. H. (2009). The two-million-year-old self. College Station: Texas A & M University Press.

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