Growing up poor, black, and gay in Miami presents a startling series of trials in Barry Jenkins’ shimmering Moonlight and protagonist Chiron has a particularly tough time battling through them all. He’s bullied at school and beyond, racing home to a crack-addicted mother who can barely look after herself, all while struggling to calm the roiling sexual confusion that boils up inside him with nowhere to go. Chiron has a rough road ahead, but Jenkins remains optimistic, turning this coming-of-age tale into a powerfully personal attempt to look ahead to the future with hope.

Having only a single feature and a few shorts under his directorial belt prior to this effort here, Jenkins tackles his tale with tremendous confidence and care. To chronicle Chiron’s experiences, the filmmaker ambitiously trisects the timeline, watching Chiron grow from a young boy into a teen into a man and mapping his development so precisely and potently that we get to witness that rarest of compelling characterization, wherein multiple actors combine to create a singular portrait.

This is Jenkins’ greatest risk and it would be forgivable if one of the Chirons faltered as long as two others were there to prop him up, so towering is the challenge of casting this precisely. But instead, all three actors are incredible, both in the unique qualities they bring to the character as individuals and in how the successor takes what the previous actor has built and organically adds to it.

Jenkins works smoothly in step with his main actors to match the tone and even, subtly, the camerawork to the performances, creating a unique feel to each chapter that still coheres to the whole. So young Chiron (Alex R. Hibbert) sits silent while others are constantly talking around him and Jenkins keeps the eye levels low so that we perceive the world as Chiron does, while also observing Chiron in the midst of this swirling, busy world.

Adolescent Chiron (Ashton Sanders) has a more nervous, jittery vibe accompany his story and Sanders carries over the quiet, introverted loneliness of Hibbert’s version, while additionally imbuing the character with a deeper sense of fear that slowly breeds an angry frustration. The high school where the majority of this chapter takes place feels like a sort of prison for Chiron, but Jenkins is empathetically orchestrating an escape.

Adult Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) is all coolly commanding, a man transformed. The once-scrawny teen is now bulked up and grown up, but he still has a soft side that hints at the hurt beneath the surface of his toned physique. Rhodes faces the significant challenge of embodying a new Chiron while still providing glimpses of the Chiron we know as established by Hibbert and Sanders. His performance, along with Jenkins’ tonal treatment of what is easily the calmest and most poetic of the three chapters, bridges the gap between the Chirons and concludes his onscreen arc with a series of emotional, romantic flourishes that are beautiful to behold.

Woven throughout Chiron’s story is also a smaller, though extremely important character arc for the protagonist’s buddy Kevin (Jaden Piner, then Jharrel Jerome, then André Holland), whose participation in each chapter marks a step forward for Chiron. Their relationship has its ups and downs along the way and each Kevin actor leaves a clear footprint on Chiron’s path to manhood and love.

That Jenkins could find three more great actors to match his trio of Chiron players is rather astonishing and the scenes shared by the two characters act as constant reminders of how easily the dramatic impact of the picture could dissolve if the cast wasn’t so rock solid. Everyone in the supporting cast also greatly contributes to the authenticity of the narrative experience, further amplifying Jenkins’ commendable ability to extract from all his actors such richly rounded performances.

This is a bold, brave work and a look at being black in America that feels honest, raw, and vitally new to the annals of cinematic expression. There are still too few black voices in moviemaking today, but Jenkins is at least a poignant and promising one. He has a youthful energy, yet a wise understanding of human emotions and the challenges that plague one as they age into adulthood.

Moonlight is about the pieces of our lives that define us and shape our identity; what we carry from the past to the next chapter and what we leave behind; how the future looks from the past and how the past looks from the future. Chiron’s upbringing is tough, his life hardened with time, his own desires stifled by his efforts to reinvent himself through the years, and yet in this harsh landscape, Jenkins finds hope. It’s only a glimmer in the darkness, but it’s beautifully, sensually visible, Chiron’s discovery that he can be happy and himself at the same time and that his future could be brighter still.

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