Director Barry Jenkins has somehow figured out how to envelop this turbulent story — a poor black boy endures soul-scarring rites of passage as he grows up to be a very troubled gay man — in an atmosphere that’s achingly tender and even beautiful.
The story is told in three distinct chapters with three different actors as the central character: We begin with little Chiron (Alex Hibbert), bullied at school but given unexpected fatherly shelter by a drug dealer (Mahershala Ali, whose gravely gentle performance is in many ways the heart of the film). Then we meet him as an adolescent (Ashton Sanders) who experiences a brief, idyllic moment of gay intimacy on a beach with another student. We conclude with the adult Chiron (Trevante Rhodes), bruised and baffled by his life, struggling to find his way back to that one, defining moment.
Even though the movie is broadly shaped by the crushing realities of Chiron’s underprivileged upbringing — even his mother, a drug addict played by Naomie Harris, taunts him for his unmasculine walk and manner — it also has, at times, an almost abstract quality, a paring-down and away of the sort of immersive, realistic detail that we expect of any contemporary movie drama. The narrative and even the physical gap between the adolescent and fully adult Chirons, for one thing, is considerable, possibly too considerable, and the homoeroticism is relatively chaste.
But this is also the point: Moonlight isn’t Boyhood. Moonlight identifies sexual awakening with spiritual healing, or at least locates them on the same plane of personal identity and fulfillment. Well, the latitude and longitude of such things can’t be too precisely charted: There’s nothing to do, finally, but intuit whether you’ve landed at the intended designation or missed it. Moonlight doesn’t miss. The performances are all very fine, forceful but not histrionic — and, like the film itself, hope-giving.
There’s also one particularly beautiful scene of boys kicking a ball on a field with Mozart’s “Laudate Dominum” being sung on the soundtrack: The ball, we eventually see, is just a makeshift bundle of torn paper, and yet the Mozart suggests the possibility of a different, floating life altogether. (Oct. 21 in limited release, R)