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All words: Alan Pyke

We’ve got digital animators who can make impossible space monsters emote and render so delicately that stories about the humanity of androids are genuinely affecting. We’ve got 3D cameras, hologram preservations of dead actors, and movies that make footage shot through microscopes seem exciting. But there’s no substitute for human performance. The tiniest muscles in the face. The trained ability to harness the mind’s emotional machinery for whatever ends a story requires. The human process of wrapping one’s entire person around a moment that might not even have words to it, grabbing it, and wielding it as a scalpel or a jackhammer or a feather. These aren’t things you can innovate past.

A lot of the stuff that wins actors praise is a byproduct of the system of ideas, events, and characters that a screenwriter or filmmaker has arrayed around them. A Spielberg flick about the Cold War or Israeli spies pursuing a righteous vengeance doesn’t actually need its actors to do all that much – we’re already poised to feel, practically hurling ourselves into every shadow on Tom Hanks’ jowl in search of the meaning we know must be there.

Moonlight will benefit from those economies of human-experience scale, for some of its viewers. But the vast majority of the moviegoing public – white Americans – won’t walk into it with the sense-memory software suite that would make this story feel personal already. It won’t matter. Writer-director Barry Jenkins’ adaption of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s story, and cinematographer James Laxton’s deft, immaculate handling of its world and characters, render the story of a young black boy in a rough corner of Miami irresistibly involving.

Some people who see this will know what a gutted-out crack den smells like, or how it feels to boil a pot of water to warm up the tub for a dish-detergent bubble bath. Some may know what it’s like to get violently bullied in school, or have the only people who show you any comfort in a rough childhood get pried away from you. Some may have done time. But even for the most coddled, sheltered eyeballs, Moonlight is gorgeous.

The visual world Jenkins and Laxton craft here deserves recognition. Laxton’s camera is the best kind of invisible, moving when it needs to but never calling attention to the wizard-hands behind the audience’s experience of a scene. The filmmakers are restrained, content mostly to recognize a potent, emotionally resonant framing of a scene, and then photograph their actors within it. Jenkins’ control of the film’s palette is cable-tight, clicking between open-air naturality and a dingy green-yellow hue set for scenes inside schools and offices. Supported by careful sound design – both musical choices and diagetic audio –the filmmaking team here never yanks you from one feeling to the next, but sets them up to flow into one another magma-like.

But all of that would add up merely to pretty, sophisticated film art if it weren’t for the performances that fill the frames Jenkins and Laxton unearth. All three of the men who play lead character Chiron –Alex Hibbert as “Little,” Ashton Sanders as “Chiron,” and Trevante Rhodes as “Black” – find gravity in his taciturn, sorrowful demeanor.

But the scene-stealers here are the supporting actors. Mahershala Ali is gutting as Juan, the gold-hearted dope man who struggled to provide Little with an informal surrogate home. A scene where Little asks Juan and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae) what “faggot” means and if he is one, and confronts him about selling drugs to his addict mother (Naomie Harris), should be all Ali needs to get cast in whatever role he wants for the next decade. André Holland’s turn as the adult version of Kevin, Chiron’s boyhood friend, is as joyous in affect as Ali’s part is heartbreaking, but he animates it with the same leonine alertness and piano-wire-fine control of eyebrows and cheeks.

In the first year since the Academy’s response to critics of its endemic whiteness began shifting from haughty denial to quiet conciliation, how Moonlight fares on nomination day will serve as a makeshift rubric of progress. If the motion picture business is serious about recognizing art, and acknowledging its traditional failure to notice art made by and about brown people, director Barry Jenkins has served up the perfect horse for Academy members to ride.

Jenkins’ masterpiece is bound to draw comparisons to Boyhood, a film that did win Academy hearts two years ago. The parallels are certainly sound at a basic geometry level: Two coming-of-age tales about boys from broken homes, constructing friendships, and relationships that fray in time. There’s even a downward shot in Moonlight of Chiron and Kevin laying on their backs in the grass under a bright sky, and anyone who’s seen the poster for Boyhood would be hard pressed to ignore the echo. You can even carry the comparison down one level deeper. The movies share a tense tone, a kind of nervous anticipation that something terrible is about to happen to characters in whom the filmmakers and actors have forced us to invest deeply. It’s an artistic feat to embed such clench-and-release rhythms in stories that root their drama in simple humanity, rather than relying on good-versus-evil stakes imported via capes, spaceships, and assault rifles.

But from there, the Boyhood compare-and-contrast gets lame fast. Moonlight is simply a superior piece of storytelling and filmmaking. And if critics and voters alike can’t think about the black boys of Moonlight, hemmed in by societal and institutional neglect and undermined by the scars their world’s left on the adults in their lives, without looping back to the suburban bicycles-and-bowling divorce nostalgia that won Richard Linklater accolades, that’s a failure not just of imagination but of empathy. That would be bizarre, since watching Moonlight taps adroitly into your empathy banks with a long, sharp, high-voltage jack.

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