The Reelist is a column featuring Kristen Page-Kirby’s musings on movies. For Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday’s review of “Moonlight,” click here

The first thing people usually want to know about a movie is what it’s about, and by that they usually mean plot. Telling people “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy is “about” perseverance in the face of a failing faith will get you some odd looks, because everyone knows it’s “about” a bunch of guys trying to get a ring to a mountain. The quest — whether it’s to get the girl, kill the bad guys or chuck that stupid ring into a volcano — is largely why we watch movies.

So, what is “Moonlight” about? Chiron (played at different ages by Alex R. Hibbert in the first act, Ashton Sanders in the second and Trevante Rhodes in the third) lives in the rough part of the city. He is gay. He grows up. The end. That’s what happens in “Moonlight,” but that’s ultimately not what it’s about.

By forsaking all but the barest bones of a linear plot, writer-director Barry Jenkins has created a character study as intense as any I’ve seen in recent memory. We get to know Chiron so well because we’re not terribly worried about what’s going to happen next. We’re not on the lookout for whatever the future will bring, so we can instead look directly at Chiron.

This extraordinary film gives us what very few movies do: the chance to pause and just spend time with the characters. It’s a heady experience, and to say that not much happens in “Moonlight” is to miss the point.
If I asked you what your life was about, would you really give me a chronology of things you’ve done? You could, I suppose, but that gives the least amount of information possible. If I told you I was born in Dallas in 1976, got married in 2005, had a kid in 2008 and have been working at this job since 2010, what would you learn about my life? Not much, because my life is (I hope) about so much more than the linear fashion in which I’ve lived it.

Obviously, the events in my life are related, one leading to the other: If I hadn’t married this specific husband, I wouldn’t have this specific kid. But it’s the life I’ve lived between the milestones, the sometimes endless-seeming days, that have shaped me, much more than any series of events.

There isn’t a plot to my life; there is just me, thinking and feeling and acting and reacting. I assume it’s the same for you, and that’s the way it is for Chiron. “Moonlight” is about a kid who lives in the rough part of the city, who is gay, who grows up. What it’s really about, though, is what it’s like to live that life.

More Reelist columns from Kristen Page-Kirby