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Moonlight is one of the year’s best films

The movie, about a gay black man coming of age in Miami, is beautiful, with a unique structure

Moonlight is one of the most beautiful films of the year.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

No movie at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival caused quite as much hubbub as Moonlight, Barry Jenkins’s film about the coming of age of a gay black man from the lower-class neighborhoods of Miami.



Sure, everything from the Jackie Kennedy biopic Jackie to the old-fashioned musical La La Land caused a fuss at TIFF. But the lines for Moonlight were atypically long; to get in to see it, I had to wait in line for two hours, which is essentially unheard of at the festival.

And there’s good reason for this. It’s easy to overhype Moonlight — which is ultimately a very small film, albeit an important one for how it deals with black men coming to terms with their sexuality.

But it’s also one of the year’s best films, one of those movies that sneaks up on you and packs a wallop in the end.

Here are three quick reasons to be very excited for Moonlight, which is now playing in limited release.

1) The visuals are exquisite

Look at those gorgeous blues.

Film fans have been hyped for Moonlight based almost solely on its trailer, which is essentially two straight minutes of downright gorgeous shots. But if anything, the final product is even more jaw-dropping.

Jenkins’s use of color and light, in particular, gives every scene in the film the feel of neon dripping out of the sky and coming to life. Nighttime scenes set at the beach are bathed in the dusky blue of the ocean. A fast food restaurant somehow becomes the warmest, most welcoming place on earth when just the right person is there. And the flutter of fluorescent lights gives scenes set at school just the right level of clinical detachment.

But Jenkins also moves the camera with great precision. It’s always roaming, always looking for a way to single out the film’s protagonist, who grows up isolated from so many in his life, including his true self. The movie, like its main character, is always searching.

2) The structure is unique

Ashton Sanders plays Chiron as a teenager.

Yes, Moonlight is a coming of age tale, but it’s not like most other coming of age films. It’s divided into three parts, following the main character, Chiron, as a child, a teenager, and an adult. Each section effectively stands on its own as a short film — and features a different actor playing the main character, because he’s aging as it progresses — though they all inform each other and loop back around to comment on each other in the end.

In short, there’s no other movie like this coming out this fall (though La La Land tries a somewhat similar gambit using the seasons of the year). Oftentimes, such a rigid approach to structure can feel gimmicky or too constraining, but Jenkins’s script (suggested by Tarell Alvin McRaney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue) is smart about how our younger selves can haunt our older ones, just as all of our potential haunts us when we’re young.

In short, this is a movie that’s really smart about aging, and about leading a life where you slowly but surely box yourself into being someone you don’t want to be. By never lingering too long in any one time period, Jenkins is able to gracefully highlight those points, without underlining them in bold.

3) It explores important ideas without preaching

Trevante Rhodes plays Chiron when he’s a young man repressing his sexuality.

Like 2015’s lesbian romance Carol, Moonlight tells a story of growing up attracted to same-sex partners in a culture that doesn’t always understand being gay. Chiron is relentlessly taunted and bullied as a child and teenager. Is it any wonder he’s so hesitant to even admit to himself that he’s gay?

Yet there are few scenes in movies this year filled with as much longing and desire as the last 10 to 15 minutes of Moonlight, which elevate the whole project from something very good to something tremendous. Like Carol, the cumulative emotional impact is so much greater than any of the parts.

That’s something queer cinema does very well. In its depictions of the moment when the dam breaks, when someone can finally be honest, it finds ways to show how corrosive lies can be to the very foundation of the self, without preaching.

Movies like Moonlight don’t have to preach. We can see just how hard it is to live like this by looking at the screen.

Moonlight is playing in limited release. It will expand throughout the country in the weeks to come.

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