There is a narrative about cinema that has taken hold in the previous decade--one that views popular art as a horse race in which some mediums must win and others must lose. The argument goes that television is "winning" over cinema right now, because it allows its creators to tell stories in greater depth and is more convenient to consume than films in theatrical release. If television is in a creative renaissance, film is, supposedly, dying of reboots and sequels and crass interpretations of existing creative properties.

This line of thinking makes for good drama, but it misses the point. Television has certainly innovated at a breathtaking pace in this century, embracing long-term serialization while creating a new genre in the form of reality television. These changes have resulted in more options for the discerning viewer and they show no signs of slowing anytime soon.

Cinema has continued to struggle with the increasing popularity of home entertainment, straining to make convincing arguments for spending $15 in a theater. In the absence of radical changes in the ways films are made and distributed, it becomes easy to confuse an economic decline for a creative one.

The two are not mutually exclusive, but those who lament the end of cinema's relevance are the kinds of people who check in around summertime, sample a few tentpoles, and complain that film is dead because each Marvel installment does not inspire the same wonder as E.T. These people follow news cycles; they are not critics. They take surface-level observations about small sample sizes as symptoms of an entire medium's health. Film and television are different, and, in some instances, each is better positioned to capitalize on certain artistic strategies than the other.

Generally, television excels at character and plot, but film, at its best, can liberate itself from plot. Its stories are not told across years, so they are free to appeal to the senses in ways that television cannot sustain over dozens of hours. There is nothing quite like emerging from a theater a little shaken, alert to sensory details you previously missed.

Moonlight is this sort of film. It follows Shiron, a black and gay man, from his early childhood to his early adulthood, where he struggles with identity and connection. He is hurt repeatedly and without mercy in his formative years, and the scars don't heal. But the film is not about theme; it is about colors, faces, sound, light. You do not experience a series of events, but a series of sensations.

This is due to its writer and director, Barry Jenkins, whose camera becomes a roving, spectral presence that moves with the religious fervor and grace of Terrence Malick's--a little spiritual, a little surreal--but without Malick's metaphysical obsessions. Jenkins' camera is devoted to the intensity of human perception; his is a heightened, sensual reality rather than an escape from it.

In the film's third act, there is a scene set in a diner operated by one of Chiron's childhood friends, Kevin, where the two meet for the first time in ten years. In that moment, the diner becomes a repository for memory, expectations, and unfulfilled desires. Most films transform spaces through set design and costuming, but Jenkins uses the timing of gestures, cuts, camera movements, and a perfect musical cue--Barbara Lewis' 1963 single 'Hello Stranger', the kind of song that can carry within it years of longing. The song, like the scene, explains a history of desire in just a few minutes, stretching to take in the daydreams and fantasies that reunite Chiron and Kevin.

This is a magnificent marriage of content and form, and an argument for the emotional potential of aesthetics. Too often, film technique is purposefully hidden or indulged with a self-conscious flair. The technique at the heart of Moonlight is not ornamental; it is alive to the contours of human emotion.

Creating this empathy requires an openness and vulnerability from the film's actors. They need to be able to live in and react to each moment. They need to be able to communicate without words, because there are not given many of them. Much of the film is spent in near silence, soundtracked only by the bustle of nature and human activity. But these actors excel in silence, particularly the three who play Chiron during his childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood. Chiron, who is monklike in his laconic speech patterns, takes in so much of his surroundings that he can't hope to articulate them.

Ashton Sanders, who plays Chiron in his teenage years, has the demanding task of wrestling within himself without verbalizing that hormonal crisis. The spoken outburst is a signature of the teen film character because it allows young actors to say everything they can't without words. Sanders needs no such crutches. He plays Chiron at his most sensitive, when he carries the weight of a paralyzing angst that bends his spine, softens his speech, and scrambles his facial expressions. You fear he will burst or collapse in himself, and when push comes to shove, he chooses one.

Trevante Rhodes takes the rebuilt, adult Chiron, who tries to hide his unresolved traumas beneath muscle and gold and power. Rhodes plays Chiron as a throbbing wound whose path to salvation lies in his rejection of everything he thought would save him. In the film's final act, he chokes on his words, and you hope he can find peace.

The film's structure creates an environment for these emotional crescendos to not just crest, but fill you completely and set your nerve endings on fire. In what is loosely arranged as a coming-of-age story, Jenkins omits some moments of transition for the incidental, banal stuff of life. His peaks are dispersed at irregular intervals, so as to flood you at times and pierce you at others.

In anticipation of Chiron's formative moments, Jenkins builds images and situations until the intensity is almost too much to bear, such as when Chiron's mother, wide-eyed and rabid, shakes him down for money to get her next drug fix. In its broad outlines, this is a common trope of films set in urban, lower-class neighborhoods. But the scene, in the finely-calibrated hurt of gestures and expressions and the movement of Jenkins' camera, shakes with tragedy.

When, near its end, the film appears to approach a catharsis, it cuts to black instead. Many Hollywood films stretch their endings until every lingering questioned is answered. This is a victory for coherence and order, but a tremendous loss for narrative and aesthetic impact. Moonlight reverses the trend and disappears before you can shake its spell. It doesn't leave.