“Moonlight” is a movie that seems to have arrived out of the blue. In reality, it’s been a long time coming. A poetic drama about growing up poor, black, and gay in an America that insists on looking anywhere but there, it’s the second feature from writer-director Barry Jenkins (“Medicine for Melancholy”) and, in its quietly radical grace, it’s a cultural watershed — a work that dismantles all the ways our media view young black men and puts in their place a series of intimate truths. You walk out feeling dazed, more whole, a little cleaner.
Extrapolated from a play by Tarell McRaney — its full title is “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue” — but hewing to aspects of the director’s biography, “Moonlight” gives us one young life in three stages: the wounding, the scarring, the healing. The first panel of the triptych, set in 1980s Miami, follows a fatherless 10-year-old named Chiron (Alex Hibbert), derisively nicknamed “Little” and bullied until he has shut down into a 50-yard stare. Chiron knows he’s a “faggot”; he just doesn’t know what the word means.
That his mentor and father figure is the neighborhood drug dealer would be an easy irony or a prelude to action clichés in a different movie. “Moonlight” asks us to consider, instead, that Juan (a majestic Mahershala Ali) might offer this lost boy the affection and emotional grounding he can’t get anywhere else and that the dealer’s girlfriend, Teresa (played by the eccentric pop-music genius Janelle Monáe, in a performance of warmth and wisdom), might be a better mother to Chiron than his own (Naomie Harris).
“Moonlight” leaps from the revelation of where the mother is getting her drugs — a surprise to no one but her son — to the boy’s high school years, where he’s played by Ashton Sanders as a penitent tied to the rack of his longings. Tormented by classmates, silently crushing on a childhood friend (Jharrel Jerome), Chiron is one of those adolescents who seems to will himself into invisibility.
This section builds to a sequence of unexpected rapture — after which Chiron apologizes, for surely he can’t deserve this — and then to a betrayal and a moment of choice. After which “Moonlight” enters its third and final phase, and you understand that everything up to that point has been prelude.
It’s maybe 10 years later. Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) has pushed his sexuality far back into the closet and become “Black,” the man his mentor never wanted him to be, a drug dealer just like Juan, pumped up and hard on the outside, absent from himself until he gets a call — out of the blue — from an old friend (André Holland).
The reunion of the two men, late at night in the Florida diner where the friend slings hash, is the reckoning toward which the film has been building, and the moment where Chiron finally emerges from the mutilated chrysalis of his life. Jenkins lets it play out with subtlety, wit, and an infinitude of tenderness, and Rhodes’s performance registers each micro-shift of emotion. Barbara Lewis’s 1963 hit “Hello Stranger” plays on the jukebox, as if Chiron were silently repeating the words to himself. (Until then, Black’s music of choice has been the hip-hop subgenre known as chopped-and-screwed, which pretty much sums up his life to date.)
Much of “Moonlight” is terribly sad, but it would be a mistake to dismiss the film as a work of chiding urban miserabilism. The tragedies here are personal; the larger social disaster of being poor and black in the United States is mostly a distant backdrop, like the weather. (Although you can’t change the weather.)
That sadness — of not being allowed to be anything like who you are — is tempered by closely observed moments of connection. Little being taught to swim by Juan, a scene that feels as foundational to us as it does to the boy. Chiron communing with Kevin on a moonlit beach. Black at the diner counter, finally remembering who Chiron was, is, and still could be.
Working with cinematographer James Laxton, Jenkins wants us to see the beauty in the concrete, so he shoots the film as an extended swoon, with saturated colors and sweeps of motion. A gorgeous minimalist score by Nicholas Britell illuminates the hero’s inner moonscape.
As good films tend to do — as a lot of good art does — “Moonlight” assumes a common humanity between its characters and its audience. But the film’s strength is rooted far more deeply in the specific. Jenkins understands he’s telling a story many of us have never seen about people our culture tells us we already know.
So while there’s the measure of truth to this film, “Moonlight” is also, in its understated and often paralyzingly lovely way, charged with the power of disassembling a lie. Comparisons to other movies, or other types of movies, about other types of people, diminish it. Some people are calling this the “best film of the year,” but that’s almost beside the point. For the two hours you’re watching it, “Moonlight” feels like the only movie ever made.
Directed by Barry Jenkins. Written by Jenkins and Tarell McCraney. Starring Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes, Mahershala Ali, Janelle Monáe, Naomie Harris, André Holland. At Boston Common, Kendall Square, Coolidge Corner. 111 minutes. Rated R (sexuality, drug use, brief violence, language throughout)