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Moonlight: The Path Not Taken

Barry Jenkins's beautiful, sympathetic film is one of the best of the year.

Photo by David Bornfriend / A24

Moonlight is a film so measured, so delicate and powerful, that it proves to be sensitive in ways most movies aren’t, even in ways most of life isn’t. Like Boyhood, it sketches out a complete life—from childhood to adolescence to adulthood—that is unique but profoundly relatable, and it shares that movie’s big heart and open-spirited view of the world. While the film is minutely focused on one person, it still feels universal; this is a movie about you, and me, and anyone who struggles with who they are and who they want to be. Moonlight is a stunning achievement, and it is one of the best films of the year.

Moonlight tells the story of Chiron, a young African-American boy in the poorer section of Miami who is smart, sensitive, and has absolutely no idea what he’s in for. We follow him over roughly fifteen years of his life: First, as a scared kid with a drug-addict mother who comes along the path of a dealer (Mahershala Ali) who wants to serve as a parental figure but isn’t exactly sure how; then as a student in high school, where he often takes beatings to hide his growing strength; and finally, we meet adult Chiron (Trevante Rhodes), who has bulked himself into an “intimidating” drug enforcer, but is unable to shake the person he wishes he could be.

Based on Tarell McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, Chiron’s struggle is also one of a repressed young gay man navigating a culture in which gayness is particularly dangerous. Writer-director Barry Jenkins smartly places this struggle in the context of Chiron’s lifelong friend Kevin who is more honest with himself about their relationship, and about himself. Jenkins gets the viewer into Chiron’s head by using scenes as if they were from a dream, faded memories that only come together in bits and pieces. He trusts viewers to fill in the detail—there is a trace of Terrence Malick in his style, though with less of Malick’s willful incoherence—and what emerges is Chiron’s growing sense that his loss and confusion aren’t just about his own sexuality, but also the persistent worry that he missed his path toward happiness and now it’s too late to turn back.

It is a measure of Jenkins’s achievement that none of this is spelled out; an enormous amount is communicated from the pain in Chiron’s eyes, no matter which actor is playing him. It really is remarkable how the three actors playing the lead, none of whom particularly look similar, are instantly recognizable as Chiron within seconds of seeing them onscreen: They’ve captured his confusion as a shared condition, instantly locking into his struggle. Our connection to Chiron deepens because Jenkins draws him so precisely; we can see our own struggles in his own.

All of this may give Moonlight a certain Important Movie sheen, but Jenkins manages to steep us in Chiron’s circumstances without the obvious Oscar-bait. Moonlight is much more focused on who Chiron is than where he is, which helps us understand what he faces with far greater clarity. Just when you think this is going to be a tragic story, that Chiron is going to lose himself and everything we’ve seen him care about, just when we fear our deepening affection for him will be in vain, he receives a phone call that sets up the final act and changes everything. The final scenes, in which Chiron reunites with Kevin (Andre Holland) and has perhaps the first truly honest conversation of his life, are both devastating and enriching: Chiron might not have it all figured out, but he’s found the path. Moonlight, like its central character, never gives up hope: It never takes a shortcut, it never does anything cheaply, and it never compromises itself. This movie is a miracle.

Grade: A

Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly for the New Republic and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter @griersonleitch or visit their site