I like to celebrate different. I like to revel in the thrill of not knowing, in the wonder of a new perspective.

MOONLIGHT has now broken me down on two occasions. The first, months ago, as I sat virtually alone in the theater, drawn in by a visually and aurally stunning trailer, that I had watched repeatedly, not able to get out of my head.

Today, I went in again. This time, I was not alone, and was watching the Best Picture of 2016. A lot had changed.

Director Barry Jenkins announces his film’s differences immediately. Aside from the three-act structure, there is no narrative anchor. There are instead only flashes of experience, brief glimpses of a life forming. The film opens with a sweeping circling camera, tracking a man we will learn only later is not our primary focus.

It is through this man’s eyes, though, that we first catch, suddenly and very briefly, a streak of peripheral movement that eventually proves to be our protagonist. This man is the origin, the beginning.

Little. Chiron. Black. He is ultimately our focal point, a child, quietly seeking himself in three acts. His body transforms dramatically between each act, while the child beneath remains.

The camera continues to float throughout most of the film, as we witness Juan teach Chiron to swim in the choppy, dangerous and yet liberating Florida ocean. Our eyes are kept just barely above water level, and at times submerged, throughout the scene. We are immersed in his fear, his excitement, his birth.

The ocean is everything in MOONLIGHT. Its sounds fill our ears. Its cool breeze touches the characters’ faces from afar. The ocean is the peace they seek. The moment Chiron pauses, in the third act, when he realizes where Kevin now lives – the look on his face, the understanding – is a moment of true beauty.

Even while tracking the film’s characters on land, cinematographer James Laxton’s camera continues to float and bob. There are brief moments of stillness, but they are dominated by the swirling tidal force.

Although there is a palpable link to cinematographer Emmanuel Lubeski’s trademark sweeping style (TREE OF LIFE, GRAVITY, BIRDMAN, THE REVENANT), Laxton’s camera is so much more intrinsically connected to the movements of open water. It is the only logical way to capture such a turbulent life. Appropriately, for the third act’s restaurant scene, the camera calms slightly, slowing to match the relative stability in Chiron’s world.

MOONLIGHT is remarkable for its simultaneous languidness and efficiency. Time flows fluidly but inconsistently. Some scenes last mere seconds while others, like the beautifully mundane restaurant scene, seem to stretch on forever.

And yet, despite this free-flowing, dream-like trajectory, MOONLIGHT is efficient throughout. We are made privy only to very select moments in Chiron’s life, but each moment seems urgently crucial and necessary. The initial chase and siege, the ocean baptism / birth, the heartbreaking question and answer exchange with Juan: each of these experiences irrevocably shapes Chiron into the man we meet in the third act.

Somehow, it’s taken me this long to get to Nicholas Brittell’s amazing score. His compositions are fittingly fluid: alternately sprawling and languid, and then suddenly tense and spilling over with urgency. The subtle skill with which he progresses from Little’s Theme, to Chiron’s Theme, and finally, to Black’s Theme is remarkable. His End Credits Suite closes the film with the perfect balance of tension and solace. There is no final resolution, only the fleeting possibility of one.

MOONLIGHT is a story of experiencing life as other. Black, gay and poor, Chiron almost perpetually finds himself on the outside, sincerely trying, yet failing to be a part of the world he quietly and patiently observes. Only in rare moments is he accepted by those that are part of this world, and it is in these moments that the film shines brightest.

MOONLIGHT’s quietly chaotic and provocative beauty reveals a rare but desperately needed perspective in cinema that all too often relies on formulaic and derivative schlock. I can only hope that this film will serve as a welcoming beacon to other neglected visions and voices.