Black and blue

Race, love and sexuality on the mean streets of America

Ends tonight, Dec. 8.Starring Trevante Rhodes, Mahershala Ali, Ashton Sanders and Alex Hibbert. Directed by Barry Jenkins. Pageant Theatre. Rated R.
Rated 5.0

Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight really is something special. Its subject matter (a kid growing up black and gay in rough parts of Miami and environs) sounds provocative at first, but what’s most extraordinary about this small, sharp, emotionally evocative movie is less a matter of social provocations than of the quiet, empathetic attention paid to emotional lives persisting, just barely, against a tide of grim circumstances.

Writer-director Jenkins has taken an unproduced play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, by Tarell Alvin McCraney, and shaped it into an unexpectedly engaging mini-epic, a bracingly casual coming-of-age tale that morphs, gradually, into a kind of love story.

The central figure in all this is a boy named Chiron, and his story is a matter of episodes from three different phases of his young life—elementary school, when he’s known as “Little” (played by Alex Hibbert); high school, when he goes by his given name (and is played by Ashton Sanders); and young adulthood, when, after a stretch in prison, he calls himself “Black” (played by Trevante Rhodes).

In the “Little” episode, he’s just begun getting glimmers of his sexuality and suffering a good deal of bullying in the process. A kid named Kevin (Jaden Piner) is his only friend, but the most dramatic relationships are with his drug-addicted mother (Naomie Harris) and with a drug dealer (Mahershala Ali), who is also a kind of neighborhood patriarch, and the latter’s kindly common-law wife (Janelle Monáe).

In the “Chiron” (high school) episode, he and Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) are discovering a sexual bond between them, and the bullying visited upon both of them has escalated to the level of gang violence. Chiron, in particular, feels driven to violence of his own.

As “Black,” in the third episode, the post-prison Chiron has taken on the heavily muscled gangsta look. But his highly fraught connection to his mother still crackles, and he’s much inclined to reconnect with Kevin (André Holland). Their stories continue.

There’s no grandstanding in the film’s acting or in any aspect of Jenkins’ direction. Part of the film’s sidelong emotional power comes from its seamless blend of performances by a cast that mixes seasoned pros with youngsters and fledglings. It’s a scripted drama, and yet Jenkins and company make the whole thing feel like everyday reality caught on the unhurried fly.