A small young boy is chased through a bad neighborhood of Liberty City, Miami, by a bunch of kids yelling "faggot." He breaks into a room in an abandoned motel, puts his head on his knees and cries. His tears aren't those of panic or fear, but of exhaustion. As if he knows that his life will continue to pile on these moments until he can't survive another day.
"Moonlight" tells the story of that young man in three different time periods: as a middle schooler, as a high schooler and as a grown man. Each vignette is titled by the name he's using in that time period. As a child he's called Little, as a teenager he's trying to be called by his birth name, Chiron, and as an adult he's just Black.
Little's mother, Paula (played by an electrifying Naomie Harris), is an abusive crackhead who throws out love in a way that feels much more like violence. Little meets a kindly crack dealer, Juan (an award-guaranteed Mahershala Ali), who has an instant love for the boy and tries to teach him lessons to become a man. These sections of the film are heartbreaking because we can see the man Little could become, but he's so quiet and withdrawn that the world seems like it will swallow him whole.
The next section follows Chiron as he deals with some heavy bullying in high school. He's not sure of his sexuality, but is simultaneously terrified and curious to explore what that means. Being gay doesn't seem like an option for him, so instead he remains the quiet and withdrawn boy named Little even as he searches for what it means to be Chiron.
The final segment sees Chiron as a man. He's not small anymore. In fact, he's a towering and imposing figure that drives fear into the people around him. But inside he's not even Chiron anymore. He's still Little, wondering if it's safe yet outside the walls of that abandoned motel.
"Moonlight" isn't just one of the best films of the year, it's one of the most important films ever made. There is a purity and an honesty to the film that's going to make the film high on most critics' "Best Of" lists for 2016. The story it tells is simple and the film doesn't try to manufacture any emotion in order to manipulate the audience.
I found tears streaming down my face multiple times in the film, but not because of sadness or joy. There are moments of such quiet profundity and beauty that the tears were an almost involuntary response to the flawless images, words and performances.
The three actors playing Chiron are perfect. They all feel connected, like cuts of the same cloth. Barry Jenkins writes and directs the film with such power and grace that "Moonlight" feels closer to a poem than a motion picture. It's a poem of rage to a media that fundamentally misunderstands young black men, a poem to each and every one of us who hopes there's enough empathy in the world to make us not feel forgotten, and a poem of peace to those questioning their own sexuality and hoping that it really does get better.
Dir. Barry Jenkins
Now playing at Old Mill Stadium 16 & IMAX
Opening in December at Tin Pan Theater