★ ★ ★ ½

Director Barry Jenkins’ sophomore feature Moonlight tells the story of Chiron, a closeted African-American man, through three periods of his life. Adapted from Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, this intimate look at the difficult coming-of-age of one man is a challenging, flawed, but ultimately richly rewarding film.

The movie begins with nine-year-old Chiron, nicknamed Little and played at this age by Alex Hibbert, dodging bullies and dealing with a chaotic home life in a poverty-stricken Miami neighborhood. His single mother Paula (Naomie Harris) is addicted to crack and frequently missing, unable to channel her love for Chiron into understandable terms for the boy. Drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali) finds him hiding from classmates in an abandoned apartment complex, and takes him back to his home for dinner. Juan and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae) soon become a surrogate family for the troubled boy as he struggles with his life as an outcast. He also finds friendship with his understanding classmate Kevin (Jaden Piner), who tries to teach him how to stand up for himself.

Act two finds Chiron (now played by Ashton Sanders) in high school as a gangly and reserved teen. Still the victim of relentless bullying and frequent beatings, Chiron fights internally with his identity as a gay man while his mother’s addiction worsens. He and Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) reconnect and explore their sexuality together. A devastating event changes Chiron’s life forever and signals the end of his childhood. In act three, Chiron (Trevante Rhodes), now going by the name Black and living in Atlanta, is involved in the drug trade and has drastically altered his physical appearance. A return to Miami sets up a reunion with his mother and Kevin (Andre Holland), who has gotten a job as a line cook.

Describing the events of Moonlight and its ever-changing cast of characters makes it seem far more convoluted than how it plays out onscreen. Jenkins expertly weaves together the three stages of Chiron’s life, aided by a remarkable cast and the gorgeous cinematography of James Laxton, who captures the proceedings in luscious shades of blue. Nicholas Britell’s score dances in stride with every twist and turn of the story, sometimes filling in the gaps during conversation, but more often accentuating the emotional voids.

The fact that three different actors were able to work together to portray Chiron is no small feat. Their body language and cues make the transition from one stage of his life to the next feel seamless. Despite the physical maturation that occurs over the course of the film, Hibbert, Sanders, and Rhodes are remarkable in terms of evoking the same spirit. Committed turns from Ali and Monae also help heighten the gravitas of Chiron’s journey.

When Moonlight works, it creates a visceral and deeply felt connection. But the movie is not without its faults—the early acts tend to drift into cliché, trotting out well-worn particulars like a drug-addled parent, unrelenting bullies, and a dope dealer with a heart of gold. In addition, a number of Chiron’s formative moments happen offscreen, which feels at times like a frustrating creative decision by Jenkins. You’ll find yourself wishing you could see the full framework of Chiron’s growth.

However, the crowning achievement of Moonlight is its ability to instill compassion via character study. Laxton’s photography—brilliant over-the-shoulder, handheld, and close-ups shots—transports viewers into Chiron’s headspace. Regardless of one’s own life story, it’s easy to identify with the pangs of burgeoning adulthood. As a cacophony of voices offer him different perspectives on masculinity and identify, Chiron’s emotions are laid bare. His environment and experiences might define him on some level, but the beauty of Moonlight lies in our understanding of what he has learned over the course of his life, and our knowledge of how difficult it is for anyone to collect so many different moments into a single id
entity.

Jenkins’ reach is equally monumental and modest. By asking what it means to be a gay black man in America, he’s also simply asking what it means to live a life by providing a snapshot of intersecting relationships. His emotionally resonant and ambitious approach to filmmaking allows the picture to outshine its shortcomings. At a time when both cinema and the world at large feel consumed by cynicism and bombast, Moonlight’s lyrical storytelling is a reminder of the aching, universal trials of the human condition.