January 24th, 2017

Quiet Desperation: The children of “Alba” and “Moonlight”

Hi folks — here’s the first in what will hopefully be a continuing series of thoughts on various new films. These won’t necessarily be reviews, but more an exploration of themes expressed in each story. To start: two of my favorite cinematic experiences of 2016: Alba and Moonlight. 


Few films and television shows paint an authentic picture of childhood. Some of it assuredly smacks of lazy writing, but I imagine that once we pass a certain age, it’s simply tough to get inside the mind and perspective of a child. Can you remember when the world was a scary place? When you weren’t sure of how to behave in certain social situations? Or when you had to deal with malicious peers?

Many young kids are quiet. And shy. And very few are truly self-assured. This is true even in the best of environments, with a stable home life and supportive parents. What happens when those pillars are stripped away? How do we cope and adapt? Two of my favorite films of 2016, Alba and Moonlight, offer refreshing contrasts to the trope of the Precocious Hollywood Tyke.

In Alba, a semi-autobiographical debut from Ecuadorian director Ana Cristina Barragán, the title character is an 11-year-old who lives with her ailing, divorced mother. When the mother’s condition worsens and she is hospitalized, Alba is sent to live with her taciturn, haggard father — who, while employed, seems mired in poverty and sitting only one rung higher than flat-out homelessness. The shellshock is written on her face as she continues to go about her daily life at her private school, suddenly very aware of the disparity between her and her well-to-do peers.

Chiron, the protagonist of Moonlight (also somewhat autobiographical, from director Barry Jenkins), doesn’t even have a grace to fall from — when we first are introduced to him at grade school, he’s already mired in a Miami ghetto, saddled with a drug-addled mother and her rotating cast of boyfriends. What’s even more problematic is that his demeanor projects weakness, which has already made him a target for bullies. This aura of vulnerability, wrapped around issues of identity, remains with him throughout his entire childhood… so much so that when we check back in with him two decades later, he’s evolved into a fearsome drug dealer.

We generally look back at life with rose-colored glasses, and have a tough time remembering the trials endured as a child, or even our mode of thinking in those early days. As a result, what we often see on screen are countless scores of kids depicted as either wise-cracking, gregarious mini-adults, or empty vessels for audiences to fawn over (a particular staple of traditional sitcoms). Director John Hughes may have had his pulse on the American teenager in the 1980s, but the confident, pint-sized hero of his 1990 home-invasion comedy Home Alone (famously played by Macaulay Culkin) was depressingly foreign from any eight-year-old I’ve ever known. At that age, simply navigating the world is a challenge, let alone foiling criminals and spouting philosophical insights.

What was most striking about Alba and Chiron is how their words were extracted about as easily as teeth, with their faces betraying little. Alba’s wariness was borne from a fear of having her classmates discover her true living conditions — there’s one moment in particular where she’s entranced with just how bright and clean a friend’s home is. Whereas Chiron, particularly in his teenage years, walked a dangerous tightrope where violence could erupt at any time. You keep silently pleading for each of them to speak out about their worries (in fact, a counselor at Chiron’s high school practically begs him to), but neither of them do. Emotions stay bottled. It’s only as a hardened adult that Chiron can finally open up to an old classmate, while Alba struggles to connect with a father who’s practically a stranger to her. Lives of quiet desperation, but also riveting… each via a filmmaker’s honesty that is admirable.

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Kevin Fullam is a writer and researcher, with extensive experience in fields ranging from sports analytics to politics and cinema.

In addition, he has hosted two long-running radio series on film and culture, and taught mass media at Loyola University.

Episodes of his two shows, Split Reel and Under Surveillance, are archived on the Radio page.