Terrific coming of age drama

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Barry Jenkins film opens in Miami, just as crack is taking over the housing projects in the 1980s. It is there we first meet Chiron, a small, under-nourished schoolboy nicknamed ‘Little’ who falls in with Juan (Mahershala Ali), the local drug dealer, and his girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monáe). Rather than try and groom him, Juan assumes paternal responsibility for the boy. This offers a sharp contrast to Chiron’s relationship with his mother Paula (Naomi Harris); an addict whose erratic behaviour pinballs between neglectful and smothering. Over a meal one night at Juan’s, Chiron asks what a ‘faggot’ is; then asks if he himself is a ‘faggot’. It is one of several flashpoint scenes – but as he consistently proves through Moonlight, Jenkins avoids clichés. Juan’s reply is careful, measured; mature. It is also filled with a weary sorry about what awaits Chiron as he grows older.

Chiron is played by Alex Hibbert in these scenes – the film’s sections are titled ‘Little’, ‘Chiron’ and ‘Black’ – and when we meet him again, as a teenager (Ashton Sanders), he is still rake thin, withdrawn and lonely, hiding his sexuality in the perilous surroundings of high school. In the third act, Chiron is now a man (nimbly played by former athlete Trevante Rhodes), who has followed the path of the only father figure he has ever known – Juan – to become a drug dealer. In town, he reunites with a school friend Kevin (Andre Holland), with whom he had his only sexual encounter.

As befitting its stage origins – In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarrell Alvin McCraney – Moonlight is a relatively intimate piece. This works to its advantages, certainly, in the final quiet set-piece between Chiron and Andre. It also allows Jenkins to tackle big subjects with care and tact. Notably, family, the ties that bind, what it means to be a black, gay man in contemporary America.

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