"Moonlight " is as wistful a film as its title might suggest. Director Barry Jenkins, in only his second feature, has created a singularly powerful and masterfully restrained work of art about a young man's coming of age in South Florida told in three different stages — child, teenager and young adult.
This is no "Boyhood," however. There are three actors portraying Chiron (surely to be a Sophie's Choice come awards season), and although it takes a bit of imagination to accept the three as the same person, "Moonlight" feels somehow even more poignant than that 12-year experiment. That's no small feat, and perhaps that's because of the power of the subject and its exploration of the gayness of an African American man.
But Jenkins has also accomplished something truly extraordinary in that "Moonlight" feels as real and raw and vague and specific as a memory. That this all coalesces into a coherent and impactful story is a testament to his singular talent — not to mention how wildly different it is from his debut, "Medicine for Melancholy."
Jenkins adapted "Moonlight" from Tarell Alvin McCraney's play "In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue." The subject, Chiron (played first by the promising newcomer Alex Hibbert) is introduced as a wisp of a boy in a rough, sunny neighborhood. He's being chased by some kids when he finds refuge in a blighted apartment. An adult on the streets notices the scene and comes to Chiron's aid, coaxing him out of hiding and back into the world.
Something is not right with this quiet little boy and this man, Juan (a powerful standout Mahershala Ali), and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe) are generous and well off enough to help. We soon find out that Chiron is indeed from an unstable home. His mother, Paula (Naomie Harris, showing grit and substance) is fiercely protective of her little boy when she's alert, but she's also a full blown addict. It's a condition that only worsens with time.
Thus, Chiron bumbles back and forth between the nurturing hominess of basic strangers, the coldness of school and the ugliness of his mother's place. There's also the uncomfortable truth that Paula buys her drugs from Juan's men. His savoir is the reason he needs saving.
The raw edges of his life are even more frayed when we meet up with him again as a teenager. Chiron (now played by Ashton Sanders) has shot up like a reed, but not yet out. His stature and quietude make him even more of a target for the hulking, clique-y boys around him, who bully and taunt him with glee.
It's only Kevin (played by Jaden Piner as a child, Jharrel Jerome as a teen and André Holland as an adult) who provides any sort of friendship throughout his life. In the teenage section, the two share an intense and passionately physical connection one night on the beach — an interaction that, however fleeting, will follow him for years.
A moment of rage stemming from the newly awakened Chiron will define the next chapter of his life, too. But I'll refrain from describing this third part. It's a transformation that's best experienced, and it's one that left my heart in pieces.
"Moonlight" is not propelled by story so much as atmosphere — a melancholy blend of music, careful imagery and colors and repeating motifs that will linger in your mind long after the credits roll. It's one of the most exciting character studies in recent memory and one that will endure beyond the politics and impermanence of awards season.
Hopefully it doesn't take Jenkins another eight years to make a film. But we can take comfort in the very strong likelihood that, even if it does, it will be well worth the wait.
"Moonlight," an A24 release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for "some sexuality, drug use, brief violence, and language throughout." Running time: 110 minutes. Four stars out of four.
MPAA Definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr