Last week I saw Manchester by the Sea and Moonlight back to back, and I was struck by the similarities. While the protagonists could hardly be more different -- white working-class Lee in Massachusetts; poor African-American Chiron growing up in Miami -- to me they both seemed afflicted by masculinity.
Lee is certainly haunted by his own truly careless action that led to the death of his three children and loss of his marriage. But even six or so years later he's unable to forgive himself and cannot allow anyone else to forgive him. Men take responsibility, and if taking responsibility means cutting himself off from all social contact, that's what Lee will do to remain a man. The only social contact he allows himself is to get into meaningless fights after getting drunk in bars. When his brother dies and leaves him the guardian for the brother's 16-year-old son, Lee finds this unthinkable; he's already proven himself incapable of caring for a child, and a man never makes the same mistake twice. Lee barely talks, perhaps taking “the strong silent type” as model and punishment.
Chiron is silenced almost from the start with no model of masculinity. His father is nowhere in sight, and he’s different enough that even as a child other boys know he can be bullied and chased at will. In his childhood, one man helps him, a drug kingpin; once he’s befriended Chiron he refuses to sell drugs to his single, drug-addicted mother, but Chiron feels the contradiction almost viscerally. The only way he can have a friend is to engage in fake fights, with their homoerotic overtone. As a teenager, he’s taunted for his gayness, for not being a man like the other boys. In the most tender yet tense scene Kevin, his childhood friend, and he make love on the beach. But for Kevin to continue to enact straight manliness, he’s forced by the school bully into taunting Chiron into a fight. After being beaten savagely by classmates, Chiron’s revenge is an assault against the bully that lands him in prison. As a grownup 10 years later, Chiron has learned to survive by becoming a drug dealer, just as his mother has finally gotten straight (has she also been in prison?). His masculinity is less brutal, and he controls his drug sellers through mind games. But he is still suppressing his sexuality and thus any close emotional relationship, as being openly homosexual can only hurt him in his survival mode of drug dealer.
Of course there are many ways the two men are different. As a gay black child and man, Chiron’s entire life is circumscribed by race, sexuality, and class. A.O. Scott’s review of Manchester by the Sea has a very interesting take on the movie’s racial subtext. But both address the question of what it takes to be a man, whether straight or gay. Lee and Chiron appear to me to be struggling with what they’ve learned masculinity means.
EDITED: This is just one small angle on these two movies, which have many nuances, especially Moonlight, that I’m not addressing. So please take it for what it is, and not what it isn’t.