The film’s triptych outlines the different stages in Chiron’s identity, which are attached to unique sets of circumstances that define his perception of the self. In part one, dubbed “Little,” Chiron perceives himself through this socially-sanctioned nickname, which aims at mocking his queerness and inability to participate in performative masculinity. Under the gentle guidance of Juan and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe), Chiron unlearns the harmful stereotypes associated with the labels hurled at him as an insult. The process is jarring, as he is unable to reconcile this newfound freedom with the neglectful, borderline abusive behavior of his mother, who treats Chiron with alternating acts of care and cruelty.
One of the most pivotal scenes in “Moonlight” is the one in which Juan takes Chiron to the beach for swimming lessons. This is a moment of transcendent connection between the two characters. Holding Chiron like a newborn about to receive baptism, Juan tells Chiron that he needs to decide who he is going to be, and nobody else can make this decision for him. This is a defining moment in Chiron’s arc, as this is the first time he has been ushered into a safe space and asked to embrace authenticity, anchored by a father figure and the fluidity of the water that momentarily feels like home.
Although Juan is an example of healthy, layered masculinity, wherein he uses gentleness to guide Chiron through the perils of life, his role as caregiver is complicated. Later, when it is revealed that Juan is the one who sells drugs to Chiron’s mother, Chiron understandably feels betrayed. Moreover, these feelings of found family and affinity are short-lived, as Juan dies inexplicably, leaving Chiron alone to navigate the turgid waters of life.