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‘Moonlight’: Boy becomes man in a vibrant film about a tough life

Ashton Sanders plays Chiron as a teenager in "Moonlight." | A24

The only criticism I have of “Moonlight” isn’t really a criticism at all — it’s more of a wish this had been a trilogy instead of a single film.

Because all three sections of writer-director Barry Jenkins’ modern masterpiece are so rich in character and story, so vibrant and bone jarring and real, one laments not spending more time with each chapter.

And isn’t that a rare and wonderful “complaint” to have about a feature film?

“Moonlight” is a “small” film in terms of budget and scope of action and size of cast, but Jenkins tackles big and timely issues, from the drug epidemic that continues to blight the inner cities, destroy families and steal futures, to a subject rarely explored in cinema: what it’s like for a young African-American to grow up gay.

Shot in the blinding afternoon sunshine (you can almost feel the heat permeating certain moments) as well as the deep and dark and often foreboding late nights of South Florida, “Moonlight” chronicles three pivotal periods in the life and times of one person, who goes by three different names at different points in his life:

• As a boy of 9 or 10, he is shy, thoughtful, preternaturally quiet and often picked on, and he is called Little (Alex Hibbert).

• As a high school student in his teens coming to terms with his sexual orientation and still fending off bullies while trying to puzzle out his place in the world, he goes mostly by his given name of Chiron (Ashton Sanders).

• And as a grown man nearing 30, he is a muscled-up, hulking (but still sensitive and contemplative) figure with a gold grill in his mouth, now embracing the nickname of Black (Trevante Rhodes).

We will call the character Chiron for the duration of this review so as to avert confusion. But rest assured, while Chiron is played by three different actors over a two-decade time span, and while Chiron experiences brutal setbacks and life-changing moments throughout this journey, the screenplay by Jenkins (adapting a play titled “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue” by Tarell Alvin McCraney) is so strong, and the performances by Hibbert, Sanders and Rhodes are so brilliant, you will never lose sight of the fact this is Chiron’s story and this is an American story and this is a story that will resonate with you for a very long time.

The young Chiron is cowering in the corner of an abandoned apartment unit, hiding out from a group of boys that want to beat him up, when he’s discovered by Juan (Mahershala Ali), who controls the drug traffic in the neighborhood.

Juan coaxes Chiron out of the apartment but cannot get Chiron to tell him where he lives — so he takes Chiron home, where his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae) develops an instant affinity for the quiet boy. For the days and years to come, Juan and Teresa’s home will be a place of refuge and relative peace for Chiron, especially when Chiron’s mother Paula (Naomie Harris) is strung out, passed out or missing in action, which is most of the time.

About that single-mom, drug-addict character. To be sure, on the surface that sounds like a role we’ve seen in a hundred other movies, but Naomie Harris is such a force and brings so many layers to the portrayal, she makes it unique and special. It’s work deserving of an Academy Award nomination.

To say the relationship between Juan and Chiron goes beyond the obvious symbolic father-son dynamic would be an understatement. There are some wonderful, touching moments, as when Juan teaches Chiron to swim — but there’s also a heavy irony shadowing their time together. For even though Juan provides protection and encouragement and is in some ways a strong male role model, we never forget he’s literally the source of Chiron’s mother’s demons. He’s the one that supplies her drugs. (A scene where Juan confronts Paula and things take an unexpected turn is as strong as anything I’ve seen at the movies this year.)

Ashton Sanders infuses the teenage Chiron with dignity and a growing streak of defiance. Trevante Rhodes as the adult Chiron is menacing, but yet still vulnerable and still reeling from certain pivotal events from his youth. All three actors portraying Chiron give outstanding performances.

This is a film brimming with memorable work. Andre Holland appears in the final chapter as the adult version of Chiron’s boyhood friend Kevin, who is the source of perhaps Chiron’s most honest and beautiful memory — as well as the darkest event in Chiron’s past. As an ex-con working as a cook in an all-night diner in Atlanta who is proud of how far he’s come but still haunted by his past actions, Holland delivers beautifully nuanced work. Even when Kevin is at his most upbeat, we can see the sorrow haunting his eyes.

“Moonlight” is gorgeous and yet bleak, uplifting and yet sobering, exhilarating but also grounded in some unshakable realities.

It deserves an Oscar nomination for best picture.

★★★★

A24 presents a film written and directed by Barry Jenkins, based on the play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” by Tarell Alvin McCraney. Rated R (for some sexuality, drug use, brief violence, and language throughout). Running time: 110 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.