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Moonlight is the sort of essential film we get a few times a year, a film that deals with topics in a mature way while maintaining the sanctity of a narrative. Barry Jenkin’s indie powerhouse is a powerful takedown of the ideals of masculinity in black culture, and in 2016 the film has never been more topical. It’s a thought provoking film, yet never one that offers up any answers, as the characters are left to their own solutions in the same way we are.

The film, told in three acts, tells the story of Chiron in his years as a child, teen, and adult. Chiron struggles with his drug addicted mother (Naomi Harris), finding solitude in a couple (Mahershela Ali and Janelle Monae) who accept him. But as Chiron grows older, questioning his sexuality and masculinity, he’s forced to live a life where he may not be accepted, and where the consequences of isolation come crashing down.

A film like could easily become preachy or tedious, but Jenkins’s utilization of the three act structure is an excellent showcase for this character’s life. The film gives the three actors playing Chiron a chance to act out key emotional moments, and our empathy for his struggle makes the story instantly compelling. It’s dramatic of course, but the film aims for supreme realism in every sense; every scene feels lifted out of a real community or person, and each choice feels pivotal and powerful.

Considering the non-eccentric nature of the film, it’s also impressive that Jenkins is able to make the film so visually stunning, including a wide range of tracking shots and continuous camerawork to make the film feel even more grounded. Imagery and long sequences of world building are also used effectively, with emotional beats left to interpretation rather than blatantly stated. Although the film is obviously Chiron’s story, the strong supporting cast also makes the film more compelling; Naomi Harris and Mahershela Ali both give fantastic, Academy-Award worthy performances.

Moonlight is truly a surprising film; for a film wrestling with such modern issues, it’s motivations are more character based that politically inclined, and from an opening pan to a stirring finale it’s an emotional ride. It’s a story about a specific environment, but the story of growing up and finding one’s culture are universal. It’s an impressive film, and regardless of the awards buzz, it’s an insightful look at how we define ourself, and how we seek to be seen. Grade: -A