The best film of 2016 is Moonlight, a coming-of-age drama that has played at Images Cinema over the past week.
Any description of Moonlight will be unable to do the film justice, because any attempt to neatly explain the film will inevitably fall short of capturing the complexities that make it so powerful. Despite the endless critical acclaim heaped on Moonlight, it never feels pretentious or like it was made for critics. It may be instinctive to compare Moonlight to Boyhood, another critically acclaimed coming-of-age epic, but this would be a mistake. Whereas Boyhood was an impressive movie deserving of its praise, it also seemed to be loved primarily by critics and people who like “those kinds of movies,” independent dramas that are released each award season. Moonlight is far easier to connect with and emotionally accessible.
Moonlight is about a gay black man, but it is too limiting to describe it as a “gay” or “black” movie. Yet the fact that this film is about a gay man is necessary to the plot of the film, and crucial to its portrayal of a historically underrepresented demographic in cinema. Likewise, the fact that Moonlight is about a young black man is central to its identity. There is not a single white person in Moonlight, which is simultaneously extremely important and also such a small part of the prodigious puzzle that is Moonlight.
The film is about the life of a young man named Chiron, told in three chapters at different points in his life. The film begins when he is a young boy and meets a man named Juan, a local drug dealer who becomes a father figure in his life. The second chapter picks up with Chiron in high school, where he struggles with school bullies and understanding his own sexuality.
By the final chapter, Chiron is an adult and, by the time this point arrives, you feel a closeness to him, as if he is a close friend you have known for years, despite only having spent 80 minutes on the screen with his story. Every line of dialogue, every decision he makes, carries an emotional weight because you can so clearly see how his life experiences have created the path to his present-day self.
Moonlight is a great story, but the level of excellence that it reaches is only achievable because of its quality in every aspect of the film. In his first feature-length production since 2008, director Barry Jenkins commands each scene and shoots with masterful focus and purpose. The lighting in each scene and his decisions on how to shoot certain moments are subtle and powerful. In a film that is incredibly heavy, Jenkins knows when to hit the viewer hard and when to be subtle. In each chapter, there are incredibly tense scenes where you can feel the importance of every word and movement. But subtlety makes Jenkins’ portrait of Chiron more convincing. For example, killing off one of the main characters off-screen and informing the audience in a casual piece of dialogue makes the film feel less like a highlight reel of Chiron’s life and more like glimpses of it, through which you can connect with the character in a real and meaningful way.
The performance of Moonlight’s relatively inexperienced cast is a great surprise. Several members of the cast were first-time actors, but it did not show. The fact that Jenkins was able to assemble such a talented cast in a low-budget movie is an impressive accomplishment in itself.
Movies are often a place to escape from reality. This is not the case with Moonlight. There is value in superhero movies and popcorn flicks. Those movies show the audience characters that are better versions of themselves, but they are not real. Every once in awhile, a film like Moonlight comes along and draws you into the reality of the human condition. Rather than providing an escape from reality, it manages to capture the incomprehensible truths everyone feels yet can’t quite explain. It’s also sad, heartbreaking and painful. There is no happily ever after or neat and tidy moment when Moonlight delivers its thesis on the meaning of life, but buried somewhere within the forest of emotions that is Moonlight, there is hope, love and meaning.
Moonlight offers us a gift: Rather than provide us with an avenue for escape, it forces us to be human. It is an unsettling and difficult experience but it is well worth it.