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Why this is the most important film of 2016

Moonlight is the heartbreaking story about a young African American coming to terms with his sexuality in a violent world, and another step forward for LGBT narratives

Every couple of years, a motion picture emerges from the festival circuit that perfectly captures our current climate. Ordinarily, these films break through by zeroing in on a point of view that hasn’t been expressed but can no longer be repressed. The stories aren’t new — two cowboy avatars of masculinity falling in love in Brokeback Mountain, a small child’s remarkable and imaginative survival after Hurricane Katrina in Beasts of the Southern Wild, or the true story of how an investigative news team uncovered decades of molestation in the Catholic Church in Spotlight — but they’re the type of narratives that are difficult to finance, and the sort that struggle not to be overshadowed by glossier prestige pictures that pour into theaters late in the year. When the timing is right, they can create ripples with a rapidly growing audience ready to embrace a socially relevant perspective at the multiplex. This phenomenon of touching the zeitgeist is what propels a movie into award season, often with an impact that outruns some of Hollywood’s more self-indulgent trophy winners that come with pre-sold campaigns like Shakespeare In Love or The Artist.

The New York Film Festival (running from September 30 to October 16 at Lincoln Center), is the final festival stop before Hollywood’s prestige season kicks into overdrive. In previewing the movies that will screen at this year’s festival, Moonlight feels almost as prescient as it is heartbreaking — which is to say, profoundly. Only the second feature from director Barry Jenkins, Moonlight is based on Tarell McCraney’s unproduced play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. The film tells the story of a young African American man’s life in three parts, illuminating the unfolding realization and reluctant acceptance of his homosexuality.

“‘What’s a faggot?’ Little asks him. “Faggot is a word used to make gay people feel bad”

Structured as a narrative triptych, we meet Chiron, nicknamed Little, as a child played with a mature intensity by the young Alex Hibbert. Little hates his mother Paula, a struggling crack addict (visceral Naomie Harris), who understands why the other boys beat him up at school and, at least partially, shares in their bigotry. Little finds refuge in the warm mentorship of a neighbourhood drug lord, Juan (a majestic Mahershala Ali) and his live-in girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae, enchanting in her film debut). “At some point you’ve got to decide for yourself who you gonna be,” Juan tells Little, early on. “You can’t let nobody make that decision.”

“What’s a faggot?” Little asks him, after an abrasive encounter with his mother. “Faggot is a word used to make gay people feel bad,” Juan explains, with a sensitivity missing elsewhere in young Chiron’s life.

In part two, Chiron is in high school, navigating threats of violence on a daily basis with no safety net, as his homosexuality begins to bloom under pressure. This middle section of the film, starring Ashton Sanders in a performance of immense power, is the most menacing and emotionally resonant of the film. Physical brutality clashes with Chiron’s first brush with falling in love — a forceful metaphor for the emotional violence of being a teenager, and a testament to the effects those traumas can have on our burgeoning identities later in life. Anyone who’s ever had to come to terms with their own difference can relate to Chiron’s feelings of rage, sadness, and isolation. Sitting on the beach with Kevin, his only friend and budding romantic interest, Chiron admits “Sometimes I cry so much I feel like I’m gonna turn to drops.”

In the third part of the film, Chiron is an adult, physically imposing after years in and out of incarceration. He’s moved to Atlanta and reinvented himself as Black, running a drug trade much like his childhood mentor, Juan. Embodying the sum of Chiron’s past experiences, Trevante Rhodes gives a star-making performance as Black, who returns to south Florida to confront his recovering mother and to settle unfinished business with Kevin (an utterly charming André Holland). It is only in hindsight that Chiron can see how his upbringing affected him, and his moving epiphany is echoed in the experience of the film, which lingers in the imagination like a series of deeply etched flashbacks.

It is startling to realize that Moonlight is only Barry Jenkins’s second film (his first, 2008’s Medicine For Melancholy, is available to stream on Netflix). From the opening scene in Juan’s tricked-out sedan, set to Boris Gardiner’s “Every Nigger Is A Star,” (recently famously sampled on Kendrick Lamar’s “Wesley’s Theory”) to lyrical scenes shot on middle school football fields, in sun-drenched diners, and on the beach under the blue moonlight, Jenkins conjures a deep, tropical melancholia, aided by a soundtrack of dreamy soul classics.

James Laxton’s cinematography includes subtle touches like tracking shots with handheld steadicam, avoiding the usual preciousness and arriving at something beautiful but real. Throughout, Jenkins conducts a symphony of naturalistic impressions from his cast, resulting in the most abundant handful of breakthrough performances since Lee Daniels reoriented the playing field with Precious. Naomie Harris and Mahershala Ali are both at their career best here, with Ali bringing a deep humanity to the film while Harris achieves something altogether harrowing. In her nuanced depiction of crack-addicted Paula, Harris lucidly transmits hysteria, delusion, self-absorption, doubt, anxiety, and denial, often in simultaneity. The fact that she does this without resorting to bombast or emotional theatrics is puzzlingly brilliant. Each time she appears on screen, we are left as disturbed as Chiron, and our impression of her becomes a scorched crater of disappointment.

“Mainstream films have been embarrassingly slow to embrace LGBT characters and stories. When none other than Steven Soderbergh needed $5 million to make Behind the studio would finance because they all said it was ‘too gay’”

Mainstream films have been embarrassingly slow to embrace LGBT characters and stories. When none other than Steven Soderbergh needed $5 million to make Behind the Candelabra, with Matt Damon and Michael Douglas attached, no studio would finance it because, Soderbergh recalled in one interview, they all said it was “too gay.” Just this summer, when the powers that be at Paramount and Skydance allowed a supporting character in the sci-fi blockbuster Star Trek Beyond to appear openly gay, controversy over revisionist Trekkie history ensued. It was one more convenient dust-up that might dissuade writers and directors from rocking the boat (or the U.S.S. Enterprise, in that case) in fear of Internet backlash.

Black LGBT characters, when rarely depicted, are often relegated to supporting and background roles, as in films like The Crying Game, She Hate Me, and Set It Off. Last year’s renegade Amazon release Tangerine, directed by Sean Baker, made leaps and bounds toward introducing queer characters of color to a mainstream audience — despite a steep uphill climb with little budget and an untested platform — winning many critics circle awards and even yielding its star, Mya Taylor, an Independent Spirit Award. Jenkins developed the idea for what would become Moonlight for eight years until it debuted at this year’s Telluride Film Festival. Though it may feel like the perfect time for Chiron’s story to be told, the emotional force is what sustains it. Jenkins has delivered an eclipse of a film. By toying with notions of time, Moonlight, with its boundless gravity, transcends it.