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Coming of age is a challenge for everyone, but for kids who are shy and sensitive, it can be downright harrowing. Bullies mistake sensitivity for weakness, and heap abuse upon those who feel it most acutely. Moonlight, the terrific new film by filmmaker Barry Jenkins, is deeply aware of the challenges facing its hero, and deepens them by setting the film around Miami housing projects—an environment with little solace for perceived weakness. But Moonlight is not a depressing film, although it can be heartbreaking. Its cast and craft converge toward a film that is life-affirming, despite the obstacles its broken hero must face.

Jenkins adapts the screenplay from Tarell Alvin McCraney, a playwright and MacArthur Fellow whose work mixes unconventional masculinity and Southern Gothic motifs. Our tragic hero is Chiron, and Jenkins divides the film into three chapters of his life. Alex Hibbert plays Chiron as a petite 11-year-old nicknamed “Little” by his peers. When we first meet him, he is running away from bullies. His soft-spoken savior is Juan (Mahershala Ali), a drug dealer who pities Little since the projects are no place for a boy like him. They start an unconventional friendship—Juan imparts life-lessons, and teaches him how to swim—while Little tries to fit in with boys his age.

Ashton Sanders plays Chiron as a teenager. He’s sullen now, and angrier, too. His mother (Naomie Harris, in a thankless role) is a drug addict, and his only friend Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) cannot decide between Chiron or the popular kids. The two boys nonetheless share a tender, ill-fated romance, one that leads to a visceral, almost operatic sense of tragedy. Trevante Rhodes plays Chiron as an adult of about thirty—his nickname is “Black”—and he still nurses the wounds from those fateful teen years. Kevin (Andre Holland) enters Black’s life by accident, and they share a night where resentment and reconciliation are equal possibilities.

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The first chapter unfolds like a dream, with Jenkins’ camera whirling around its characters as if in play with them. We mostly look up to Little, literally: He is in medium shot, seen from below, so his world seems scary and distorted. Most of the dialogue in the opening belongs to Ali, who plays Juan. There is an incredible scene that juxtaposes tenderness and tough realism: Juan explains the word “fag” to Little, since it’s the favorite insult against him. Juan does not condescend to Little, and instead speaks directly, and with as little pity as he can stomach.

The most remarkable thing about Moonlight is how three different actors play Kevin/Chiron, and each version adds resonance to the other two. Rhodes plays the oldest Chiron with some cockiness: he strikes as an intimidating figure, wearing silver grillz and clothes that show off his muscles. But in the film’s final moments, his eyes soften and his presence shrinks to the scared, timid kid from all those years back. Holland and Rhodes have natural, reserved chemistry. Jenkins shoots them in a more traditional way, letting the natural dialogue and intense depth of feeling speak for itself. It might be tempting to see Moonlight as an “issue” film: it is explicitly about the modern black experience, its lead character is gay, and the only substantive female role belongs to a drug addict. But those labels do the film a disservice, since Jenkins and McCraney never waiver from a shared purpose of specificity. 

Intentionally or not, Moonlight is like the antithesis of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. Both films may be about coming of age for a young man, but Linklater’s innovation stops with the novelty of Boyhood’s premise. In Moonlight, the form serves the characters, instead of being broad to a fault. Cinematographer James Laxton bathes black bodies in color that deepen their beauty—the film’s title refers to how black people look when reflected in blue light—while composer Nicholas Britell’s swirling violins are a potent metaphor for the inner demons Chiron would never betray. 

The film’s specificity ultimately makes it universal. Though one might not directly relate to it, Moonlight unfolds with such deep, confident perception of its characters and environment that Chiron’s fractured life is beautifully observed, and breathtakingly felt.

Moonlight opens Thursday at Landmark’s E Street Cinema.