For all of its simplicity and grace, Moonlight bathes its audience in a baptism of neon light. It is a story for the ages, but it is also a stunning snapshot of where we are as a nation. While Moonlight has been championed as a watershed African-American film, it is also an all-American story in its radical telling of a young man's search for peace in a land bordered by economic hardship, racial discord and sexual tumult.
Exiting from its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it debuted in September to tears and rapturous applause, I was swept from the theater into a swarm of the planet's film critics who were anxious to send dispatches to their publications. "A masterpiece," wrote Rolling Stone's David Fear. "One of the best," said Time's Stephanie Zacharek. "Devastating," wrote The Guardian's Benjamin Lee.
Over the din of the audience, which was roaring with approval for the cast and creative talent, another critic shouted to me, "Well this changes everything for the Oscars."
Yes, it does. Moonlight will certainly be one of the front-runners for Best Picture and its magnificent director, composer of its soundtrack and cast of actors should all be singled out for Oscar nods.
In part, it read: "I will not forget Moonlight anytime soon. It has been a full 48 hours since I've watched its premiere and I can't shake it. ... By telling a singular story of a young African-American man, it opens up dialogue and debates that are long overdue: about racial identity, sexual identity and America's failed war on poverty. ... It hurts so bad (and so good) to watch."
Moonlight is based on a decade-old play penned by Tarell McCraney, titled, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. In bringing McCraney's play to the big screen, director/screenwriter Barry Jenkins split the original work into three acts representing the childhood, adolescence and manhood of its central character, Chiron (pronounced shy-RON), a meek child who is regularly bullied in his rough Miami neighborhood.
Early in the film, after being chased by bullies, the boy is discovered and befriended by Juan, who is—unbeknownst to Chiron—the neighborhood crack-dealing kingpin. Juan is embodied by Mahershala Ali, who is almost sure to be nominated for an Oscar and currently burning up the small screen in Netflix series House of Cards and Luke Cage.
Juan's girlfriend, who becomes a mother-like figure to Chiron, is expertly played by Janelle Monae, the wildly popular R&B singer in her big-screen debut. Making matters more complicated is the fact that Juan also happens to be the crack-supplier to Chiron's birth mother, a heavily-addicted hot mess.
Chiron is a teenager in the second act of Moonlight, but he hasn't grown into his body as much as he has grown more fearful of being bullied and his economic victimhood. By the third act, Chiron is a grown, muscular man who has embraced some stark choices—some good but mostly sad—made as a lonely young adult.
Ultimately, Moonlight becomes a requiem. Yes, Moonlight confronts crime and punishment, but it is equally tender as the portrait of a young man's ache for acceptance and love. Director Jenkins and his director of photography, James Laxton, have crafted a poetic, breathtakingly visual film that employs slow, lazy nighttime images of Miami's beaches. As the wind whistles softly through nearby palm trees, moonlight covers the sand in a gorgeous blanket of blue. All the while, composer Nicholas Britell's jazzy score adds to the humidity. Even on the chilliest of nights, it's a fair bet you'll feel beads of sweat while experiencing Moonlight.
Is it absolutely the best movie of 2016? Honestly, I'm not sure yet. As you will learn soon enough, nearly a half dozen films that are about to open in Boise over the next several weeks are among the best in years. When the envelope is opened next February to reveal the Best Picture Oscar, my guess is it will be a toss-up: either Moonlight or La La Land (another masterpiece scheduled to open in December). Make no mistake, however: Moonlight is amazing.