This year’s Best Picture Oscar winner, Moonlight was probably most inspired by the French and Italian neorealist films of the 1940s and 50s, especial Vittoria de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948) and François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959). But when I watched the enthralling coming-of-age story of Chrion at three different stages in his life played by three different equally brilliant actors, I couldn’t stop thinking about the main characters in Nicholas Ray’s Rebel without a Cause. Rebel is entirely focused on teenagers, but like Chiron these are all young people who find themselves lost in life due to no fault of their own.
Jim (James Dean) wants to know what it means to be a man but has no one to show him. Just like Chiron, he has a father figure (in Jim’s case his real father, but in Chiron’s case, a man who shows real interest and concern for him but is torn in his own life as a reluctant drug dealer who hates what he does to other people but loves the money too much to give it up). Jim is right to call his father mush. His dad tries to show him how to be a man but obviously has no idea himself what that means. He knows he needs to take responsibility for himself and his family but has no idea how to do it. His life is torn apart and it results in tearing apart the lives of his family, leading of course to one of the greatest lines in movie history when Jim yells at his family, but especially his father, “You’re tearing me apart!”
Judy (Natalie Wood) has a father who’s unwilling to take any responsibility for the perverse attraction he has with Judy. The movie implies that no any actual incest happens. Her dad hates his feelings but he takes the easy way out of dealing with those feelings by blaming Judy even though she’s doing nothing wrong. When she tries to show appropriate affection of a daughter to her father, he instantly changes from the appearance of a fun-loving, easy-going personality into an angry, hostile, emotionally violent abuser. These rapid and unpredictable changes are a major part of the reality that Chiron in Moonlight has to endure at the hand of his mother. She’s a drug addict who seems to be loving and motherly when she wants something from him but hateful and neglectful when she doesn’t see him as useful to her.
And just like Chiron, Plato (Sal Mineo) has two absent parents, a father completely out of the picture, and a mother who puts her own selfish desires always ahead of her son, is often not with him, leaving him to grow up on his own. As Plato tries to find his way in the world, it’s his two friends Jim and Judy who give him his only semblance of family, just like the drug dealer and his wife do for Chiron. It’s also this pseudo-family that helps Plato (just like for Chiron) navigate his questions of sexual identity. But they’re not capable of doing it in any way that can promote a healthy future like a real family should be able to do, but he’ll take whatever he can get.
Like Moonlight, Rebel without a Cause is a very sad and troubling film that shows the harsh realities of growing up without stable relationships, without any modeling of a healthy life. But Both movies are extremely satisfying in the way they introduce us to characters that represent whole personalities of people who are much like the people we may be ourselves or may know. They require an empathy that cares about the characters in the movie and then reaches out to the people in our own lives with the same struggles as those in the movies.