Moonlight: Year’s Most Original, Lyrical, and Powerful American Drama

As of today, Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight is the most original and powerful dramatic feature of 2016.

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If you don’t respond to three or four of this striking indie’s many emotionally intense, truly heartbreaking scenes, you should stop going to the movies alltogether.

Spanning two decades, Moonlight tells the turbulent journey, both physical and emotional, of one young man as he struggles to “find” and to “define” himself–socially, culturally, and sexually.

Benefiting from an original narrative structure, the story is told across three distinct and defining chapters in his life.

Though intimate in focus–essentially centering on one character–Moonlight is epic in ambition, scale, and depth.  And though it’s is grounded in a particular economic context and social class, the journey of this boy into young manhood has universal meanings due to the ways in which his falling in love and having sex for the first time are depicted, with all the ecstasy, pain and beauty involved in these processes.

Anchored by astonishing performances and the singular vision of filmmaker Barry Jenkins, Moonlight explores the very essence of masculinity, offering a deeply intimate yet sensual look at the defining moments of our lives and the individuals that are responsible for shaping them.

This is the second film for director Barry Jenkins, following the critically acclaimed Medicine for Melancholy, a romantic feature that not many critics or viewers saw (I’m told a new DVD release is in the works).

The tale follows one young man’s tumultuous coming age and coming out in a tough Miami neighborhood in South Florida over the course of two decades.

The multi-layered drama intersects the factors of race, sexuality, masculinity, identity, family and love, and how those crucial variables shape our everyday lives in both anticipated and unanticipated ways. Phrased in a different way, Moonlights emphasizes the importance of both randomness and open-mindedness in our encounters with others.

No American film of recent years has been so bold, thematically and artistically, in capturing the feelings of longing and heartache as they define–both enhance and arrest–the development of one young man.

Structurally, the movie is divided into three chapters, each centering on the protagonist at a different phase of his life.

A trio of gifted actors (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes) inhabit the movie’s single hero, officially named Chiron, but referred to by various nick names at different point in life.

As Chiron grows from an uncertain and tentative boy into a bullied teenager grappling with his sexuality and finally into a grown man, Jenkins skillfully shows through three distinct chapters, revealing how the powerful moments in each of our lives coalesce to shape our identities and define our fates.

The stunning supporting ensemble is headed by Naomie Harris (still best known for supporting roles in trivial fare, like James Bond and Pirates of the Caribbean), playing with tough yet impassioned grace a crack addicted single mother, who’s trying to raise her young son amid tempestuous personal struggles.

Janelle Monáe (in her feature debut) André Holland (SELMA) and Mahershala Ali (a recent Emmy nominee for “House of Cards”), embody the indelible mentors who help nurture Chiron across the turbulent years.