It's impossible to pinpoint exactly how Barry Jenkins's Moonlight gets inside your head and makes you see the world with new eyes. But it does – and then it owns you. This is a game-changer, the kind of movie that defies glib categorization. Reduced to tweet size, it's about the experience of growing up black, gay and alienated in the Miami projects. Jenkins, adapting Tarell Alvin McCraney's play In the Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, locks focus on one boy through three stages of his life – as a nine-year-old, a teenager, and an adult. Three stellar actors take us on this journey into the core of self-awareness. Each one will break your heart.
At the start, Chiron, played by Alex Hibbert, doesn't know he's gay, even though bullies call him "Little" and mock him relentlessly. His single mother Paula (Naomie Harris), a nurse, notices "the way he walks," but is more interested in the way her next crack fix will blur her pain. At school, Chiron's one friend, Kevin (Jaden Piner) pushes him to fight back. No go. The closest he comes to family is Juan (the outstanding Mahershala Ali), a Cuba-born pusher who brings this mostly mute kid to the house he shares with girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe) and tries to force him to open up. Juan even teaches him to swim. Paula isn't buying the helping hand. "You going to tell him why the other kids kick his ass?" she dares him. Juan stands firm with Chiron: "At some point you gotta decide for yourself who you're going to be." Really, a drug dealer as a role model? Yes, really. It's just when you think you hear the clichés clicking into place that Jenkins pulls the rug out from under you.
At 16, Chiron (now played by Ashton Sanders) is nothing but skin, bones and exposed nerve-endings. Tersea offers a soft place to land, but Juan is gone (we don't learn why ... but it's not hard to figure out). There's no protection this time from the relentless gay-bashing at school. Still, Chiron gets up the courage to talk sex with Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), now the school Lothario who shows a bi-curious side in a moonlit beach scene of surprising sweetness. In public, though, his best friend hangs with the gangbangers and participates in a brutal beating of Chiron. An act of retaliation, an explosion of pent-up rage, lands the teenager in prison.
Catching up with Chiron, after a decade-long lapse, is a shock. The extraordinary Trevante Rhodes embodies the role like a street gladiator, complete with diamond earrings and gold grillz. We don't recognize him, except for the flashes of vulnerability that haven't left him. Known as "Black," the name Kevin gave him, Chiron has traded in Miami for Atlanta and his own mini-drug empire. But a call from Kevin, played in maturity by a standout André Holland of The Knick, brings him home for a visit. The scene between the two of them, a jaded ex-con and divorced father running a diner, is so fragile and fiercely moving in its eloquent silences that no detail should be spoiled here.
What needs to be said about the movie, however, is that its hard shell never conceals its shimmering delicacy and feeling. Though drugs and gang violence are always present, Jenkins – who hasn't directed a film since 2008's Medicine for Melancholy – creates cinematic poetry out of Chiron's failed effort to build a wall around his heart. The actors are uniformly superb, and Harris, who portrays the mother in all three segments, achieves something miraculous: a forgiving portrait of neglect. With the help of James Laxton's sinuous camerawork and a soulful score from Nicholas Britell, Jenkins shows us Chiron in the act of inventing himself, of creating an identity. The effect is both intimate and epic. Moonlight, which announces Jenkins as a major filmmaker, gets you good. It stays raw from first scene to last.