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Moonlight is a remarkable achievement in filmmaking. Its Best Picture win is well deserved.

From its direction and screenplay to its score and performances, Moonlight shows what movies can do.

Still from Moonlight
Moonlight won Best Picture at the Oscars on Sunday.
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Moonlight is the little movie that could, and the fact that it made it to the Oscars at all is a shock. That it won Best Picture — even setting aside the bizarre manner in which it ultimately won — is practically a miracle.

Moonlight doesn’t star any household names — though that may change soon, especially with Mahershala Ali’s Best Supporting Actor win. Its director, Barry Jenkins, has only directed one other feature film, Medicine for Melancholy, which had a staggeringly low budget of $15,000.

Moonlight’s budget was $1.6 million, which is very low by most standards. (By contrast, fellow Best Picture nominees La La Land shot for $30 million, Hacksaw Ridge for $40 million, Arrival for $47 million, and Hell or High Water for $12 million.) And while its $22 million gross is terrific for such a low budget, it’s still the lowest-grossing of the Best Picture nominees.

But though the film — which currently has a 99 rating on Metacritic — was adored by critics, topping most year-end lists (including mine), it wasn’t selling out theaters or breaking box office records like Hidden Figures (which co-starred two of Moonlight’s stars, Mahershala Ali and Janelle Monáe). And while a movie about a poor, gay black young man in the housing projects might have been beloved by critics, it’s not the type of Oscar material traditionally selected by Hollywood’s elite — especially when its biggest competition was a movie musical about Hollywood, historically one of the Oscars’ favorite subjects.

Moonlight feels more like a symphony or a poem than a mere movie

But really, the big hindrance to Moonlight’s wider success was that it’s a small, arty film about a black boy growing up in the housing projects outside Miami, with a mother who is an addict and a surrogate father who deals drugs, as he deals with bullies and discovers his homosexuality.

Ashton Sanders plays Chiron as a teenager in Moonlight.

All of that formed into a film that feels more like a symphony or a poem than a mere movie. Jenkins has said in interviews that he was inspired by Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien’s 2005 film Three Times, a quiet triptych structured around romance. (The diner scene in Moonlight’s final third even contains an homage to Hou’s film.) And it makes sense: Three Times gives the audience the sense that they’re watching poetry, not just a story. It’s mysterious and open-ended and beautifully shot, and in following Hou’s lead, Jenkins created something mysterious, open-ended, and beautifully shot in its own unique way.

Jenkins worked closely with award-winning playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, who wrote a sketch of a play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, while in drama school. The play was deeply personal to him — and, as it turned out, to Jenkins, too. (Both Jenkins and McCraney grew up the Liberty City neighborhood of Miami, the same place as their characters. Both of their mothers were addicts and HIV-positive, like Chiron’s mother. Jenkins is straight; McCraney is gay.) The play wasn’t published or produced, but Jenkins ran across it and thought it would make a fantastic film. The pair shared the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.

The result of their collaboration, the Moonlight screenplay, is remarkably well-written. The parts of screenplays that aren’t dialogue don’t always come across as carefully crafted as the dialogue itself. But even the descriptions in the Moonlight screenplay are masterful, like the “kind of day where phosphorous fumes wave above the asphalt” and “the water stretching out before him, endless. Even in this dying light, stretching on forever.”

The cast of Moonlight is extraordinary — which helps show Jenkins’s mastery as director

But it’s the acting that makes a screenplay come alive, and the manner in which the film was shot is really where Jenkins’s skill as a director becomes apparent. The three-act structure, each act titled for what the main character (whose given name is Chiron) is called when the act takes place, presented some challenges for the film. Chief among them is the fact that the character is at three vastly different ages in each of the three acts: first a little boy, then a gangly teenager, and finally, a full-grown man.

Three different actors were cast in the roles. Alex Hibbert, who plays Chiron when he’s small enough to be nicknamed “Little,” was 12 when the film shot. It was his first film role ever. Ashton Sanders, who plays Chiron as a teenager, had small parts in other films before (including Straight Outta Compton). And Trevante Rhodes, who portrays Chiron as a streetwise adult man nicknamed “Black,” had done only a few small parts as well.

Trevante Rhodes in Moonlight
Trevante Rhodes in Moonlight.

The three actors never met during Moonlight’s production, which is almost impossible to believe — the three couldn’t be mimicking one another’s performances, but their portrayals of Chiron seem drawn along a single continuum. Rhodes in particular completely inhabits the character — all three layers are there: world-hardened adult, frustrated teenager, and tiny, vulnerable boy.

The threads of Chiron had to be braided into one character by someone, and that someone was Jenkins, who guided the actors as they performed the character. What’s on the screen is a testament to his skill and sensibility.

In the end, Moonlight’s appeal comes from subtlety, not showiness

The main cast is remarkable, but Ali is marvelous as well, as is André Holland, and Janelle Monáe, and Naomie Harris — the list could go on. And it’s all undergirded by an indelible, unconventional score by Nicholas Britell, which subtly mixes organic sounds with a spare, almost minimalist composition.

In fact, one of the film’s best moments is musical, when teenage Chiron, finally pushed into anger instead of passivity, is headed to get his revenge on the bully who’s made his life miserable. In the background, the musical cue is at once familiar and emotionally telling: an orchestra tuning up before beginning to play. All the instruments are playing at once, and it’s a cacophony. But as with an orchestra, the chaos of emotions and physical reactions Chiron is feeling at that moment are about to come together into one explosive whole.

Mahershala Ali won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his work in Moonlight.

But for all the filmmaking mastery on display in Moonlight, it’s a subtle film, not a showy one. Jenkins isn’t here to show off. If you didn’t know what to look for, you might miss how good his work is.

And yet the story itself still sticks with you after the credits roll. Chiron’s story, about coming to understand who he is in a world that seems calculated to beat him up, is precisely the sort of thing that movie lovers are talking about (however corny it seems) when they talk about the “power of cinema.” To sit with Chiron through three turning points in his life, and to see how powerfully his life is affected by the people closest to him, is to feel his life along with him. If empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, then Moonlight is an exercise in generating empathy, embodied. It’s a masterpiece — and its Best Picture win is the very best sort of shock.

Moonlight is currently in theaters. Watch the trailer: