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The tragically under-seen film Moonlight is getting quite the buzz among indie circles. While it's earned an impressive run in some alternative theaters, this is a film that just seems hard to get a hold of depending on where you live. Regardless, it has proven to be one of the most captivating, impressive pieces of cinema released over the last year. It has built its reputation as a 2017 Best Picture contender, with some even calling it a frontrunner at this point. So what is it about Moonlight that has everybody talking?

Anyone who has seen the film will tell you that it's a journey of emotions, and a very personal journey at that. This is a film that relies on pure honesty and bravery to tell its story effectively, and it does so with stunning results. I found myself hunched forward in my chair, staring at the credits with disbelief once I finally reached its conclusion. If you like to keep up with Oscar buzz, this is a film you'll need to see, so I've collected my thoughts on why this film is so powerful in reaching audiences.

The Search for Identity

Alex H. Hibbert and Mahershala Ali in the first act of Moonlight. [Credit: 4AD]
Alex H. Hibbert and Mahershala Ali in the first act of Moonlight. [Credit: 4AD]

A central theme of the film is identity. From his origins as a shy, fearful boy in Miami and throughout his life into adulthood, the film's protagonist Chiron is in search of who he wants to become. This is signified by the title card of each of the film's 3 acts, which signify a name to which Chiron currently responds. Over the course of the film, we see Chiron reject these former identities as he attempts to build himself into the man he strives to be.

Moonlight will frequently use imagery to show this growth of Chiron's character. The above image depicts an early scene in the film in which Juan (played by Mahershala Ali) teaches a young Chiron to swim. Juan is the first person to encourage Chiron, building his confidence and telling him that he can be whoever he wants. By imparting this wisdom, Juan can be seen as instilling this search for identity into Chiron at a young age. The above image, therefore, can be seen as a sort of baptism, a spiritual ceremony that sets Chiron forward on his path.

Throughout the film, Moonlight will use important scenes such as these to show progress in Chiron's search. By the end of the film, we're encouraged to question whether Chiron has finally attained the identity he desires or whether there is still work to be done. Because the film is filled with other dynamic characters, we get to see them seek out their own identities alongside the protagonist as well.

This is a film about change and personal fulfillment, something that grounds Moonlight in a familiar sense of honesty. Audiences connect with the movie because they identify with Chiron. When he feels lost, uncertain and rejected by his environment, the audience can empathize in some way. Chiron also faces hurtful expectations and prejudices for how he chooses to label himself, and his struggle is identifiable to many audience members in this way as well.

An Unconventional Story

Ashton Sanders as Chiron in the film's second act. [Credit: 4AD]
Ashton Sanders as Chiron in the film's second act. [Credit: 4AD]

Moonlight stands out in the cinematic landscape right now for its offbeat, unconventional story structure. It's a film that critics have had a hard time categorizing, and this muddled structure pays off beautifully when appreciating the film. There's no central goal or conflict to the movie. Rather, Moonlight presents its audience with all kinds of odds and ends that build powerfully into one man's search for identity.

This structural distinction is key to Moonlight resonating with its audience and lingering in your mind long after viewing. This is a movie that feels less like a screenplay and more like somebody's life. Scenes don't progress through a conventional formula, building to an obvious climax. Rather, we see a man growing up and struggling with issues both new and old as he tries to establish his identity. In this sense, Moonlight is groundbreaking and powerful in its approach to its narrative because it mirrors reality.

There also seems to be an overall rejection of recognizable story tropes throughout the film. Just about every scene feels like something you've never seen in a movie theater before, with complex relationships and situations that take bold leaps into relatively unexplored territory for the plot of a film. This innovation helps Moonlight stand out as a refreshing piece of art, one that will leave you hanging on every word because you're unsure of where the film will take you next.

Moonlight is also particularly impactful for its representation of various minority groups. Not only does the film feature an all-black cast, but see the perspectives of homosexual characters and those in low-income communities. All of these groups make a refreshing appearance in Moonlight, and their issues are treated with dignity and respect. Seeing this film will make you question why these groups are so underrepresented in the first place when their perspectives are so powerful and important.

A Film that Speaks to the Heart

André Holland as Kevin in the final act of Moonlight. [Credit: 4AD]
André Holland as Kevin in the final act of Moonlight. [Credit: 4AD]

Perhaps Moonlight's greatest triumph is that it reaches out to its audience on a personal level, establishing them as a friend. While this is a movie that challenges you intellectually, its primary objective is to speak to your heart. It's a film that puts forward a hand and pulls you into the life of this character, with every scene given a soft sense of respect that helps you empathize and appreciate the beauty of the story.

The dialogue is key for creating this honesty. The film's screenplay, written by its director Barry Jenkins, allows each scene time to breathe. While most other films would use every precious second to advance story and build conflict, Moonlight breaks down these walls with a slow, more natural approach to character development. The film's protagonist is soft-spoken, and scenes will often take their time in actually getting him to say anything. When he does speak, the payoff is all the better, and you're left entranced and completely invested in his words by the end of the film.

Jenkins also rejects stock characters of any kind, with each figure in the film appearing unique, dynamic, and necessary to the film's overall journey. The film also asserts the idea that as people's identities change, we have to be open to thinking about them in new ways. This theme is embodied in the character of Kevin (pictured above) whose change from acts 2 to 3 is pivotal to the overall triumph of the film. These characters all seem to either guide or challenge Chiron on his search for identity, and their grounding in reality makes the film all the more powerful and captivating.

Ashton Sanders during a powerful scene in Moonlight. [Source: 4AD]
Ashton Sanders during a powerful scene in Moonlight. [Source: 4AD]

While Moonlight may challenge your expectations and present new ideas you've never seen on the silver screen before, it's a movie that's well worth your time for these reasons. Of all the films released in 2016, this one is perhaps the most successful in terms of drawing in its audience with honesty and genuine heart. It's not simply a movie about conflict, but it's a movie about people. It's a simple but powerful notion that has earned Moonlight an astounding reputation and gives it heavy contention moving into Oscar season in the coming weeks. This is definitely a film to keep an eye on!

What did you think of 'Moonlight'? Let me know in the comments below!

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