Why we’re in love with the gorgeous, tender film “Moonlight”

There’s a scene in the opening panel of Moonlight, a triptych, the second feature film by director and writer Barry Jenkins, that is so beautiful and holy that it literally hurts my heart to recall it now. Chiron, the curious, quiet child whose life shapes the film’s passage, is floating on his back in the Atlantic Ocean in the arms of Juan, whose dazzling entrance is later shadowed by Chiron in the film’s third part. The water is an uncannily clear green-blue, reflected both against the clearer blue-blue of the sky and the thin sheen of black-blue that glazes both Chiron and Juan. The scene recalls a pieta, or a baptism, or both. The camera dips under the waves; you hear the dialogue above the gurgling thump of water meeting barrier. Chiron is learning how to swim.

The festival circuit buzz around Moonlight has been building since the film’s debut earlier this year, and it’s currently showing in a smattering of theaters in the United States, all of them located in Los Angeles and New York. We realize not everyone will be able to get themselves to a theater seat now, though perhaps this could change if the film gets a wider release. But all of this is ancillary, words that don’t recall the depth of feeling Moonlight carries within it, for its hero and his revolving, but not quite changing, cast of characters. It is a black narrative in a medium that often prescribes shallow tropes to those characters; it is a queer narrative that resists boundless optimism for the kind of reality that’s oftentimes overlooked in favor of happier, more “triumphant” stories.

Jenkins’s gift is in capturing the silence pulled taut between stares; his trio of Chiron actors, Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes, carry their dialogue not just in their delivery but in the way their bodies move, and oftentimes, stay unnaturally still. Naomie Harris, Mahershala Ali, and André Holland deliver tightrope performances of characters that aren’t just complicated; they’re human.

Watch the trailer below.

However, if possible, go in cold; like wild water, which you brace for but can never quite anticipate: