There's been a lot of talk of representation in the movies this year, especially in the wake of #OscarsSoWhite. It initially seemed like Nate Parkers' Birth of a Nation would be the film carrying the flag all the way to the Oscars, but in its place has been Barry Jenkins's Moonlight. Which is fitting given how important LGBTQ issues have been recently.
Moonlight is the story of a young black man growing up in Miami. His mother is a crack addict. He's constantly beat on at school. So one day, when drug dealer Juan finds him hiding out in an abandoned crack house, he doesn't speak much. Juan and his girlfriend Theresa become like surrogate parents as he grows up. Moonlight is told in three parts, each titled for one of our main character's names: Little (his childhood nickname), Chiron (his given name), and Black (the name he adopts as a young adult). The structure is important, as the film is basically about Chiron's search for identity, his quest to become who he is.
Alongside Chiron's story, we get the story of his best friend Kevin, who mirrors Chiron in a lot of ways. Where Chiron has difficulty expressing himself, Kevin is super talkative. Where Chiron is insular, Kevin is outgoing and seemingly friends with everybody. While Chiron is still figuring out who he is, Kevin has, and knows enough to be able to repress it when he has to.
Moolight is easily the most beautiful film of the year, and not just visually. Thematically, this is one of the most impactful films of the year, and the screenplay (adapted from an unproduced play by Tarell Alvin McCraney) deals with it beautifully. The first time I saw Moonlight, I worried that the character of Juan was a bit too idealized in how he responds to Little, but this recent second time through revealed how fully realized the surrogate father relationship between the two of them is. The screenplay has some beautifully written scenes, but the final scene of the first part, where an outburst from his mother has prompted Little to ask Juan the dreaded "what's a faggot?" is as perfect as it gets.
Moonlight is a perfect three-act play, but it's given gorgeous cinematic life by director Barry Jenkins and his team, especially cinematographer James Laxton, who crafts each image with uncommon care. Seriously, every frame of this could hang on the wall in an art gallery. And the score by Nicholas Britell gives perfect voice to Chiron's character and journey. And I haven't even said anything about the cast, who give the greatest ensemble performance of 2016. Yes, Naomie Harris and Mahershala Ali have gotten the lion's share of the awards attention, but the performances of the three Chirons and Kevins are just incredible, somehow feeling like one character instead of three. Together, the three actors playing Chiron give the performance of the year.
I don't have enough words in my vocabulary to describe how beautiful this movie is, how meaningful it is, both in general and to me personally. Moonlight is everything the movies should be: In telling the story of people we rarely if ever get to see onscreen, it can mean the world to so many, and give understanding to so many more. It is, no exaggeration, a film that has the power to change and even save lives.