All it takes is a moment to change your life. One encounter, a tiny handful of friendships, a few life turns, fewer than you might imagine, this way or that.
Barry Jenkins’ exquisite character study “Moonlight” understands this. Filmed from “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” an unproduced play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, “Moonlight” envelops us in those moments, refracts them in gaudy color, making portraits of the people who, for good and ill, participate in those moments.
When we first meet Chiron (pronounced Shy-rone) — the protagonist we encounter at three distinct stages of his complicated life — he is running as fast as he possibly can.
Played by a smartly-directed Alex Hibbert, he’s about 8 or 9 years old, and schoolkids are chasing him — we’re not completely sure why, but maybe there was a gay slur in their shouts.
He dashes into a boarded-up crack house, where he is soon unearthed by Juan (Mahershala Ali, deserving of a supporting actor Oscar), a drug crew middleman we’ve just met hanging out on the corner with one of his dealers. He tries to coax the boy, who will not speak, out of danger and decides to take him home to his girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monáe).
Because we, the audience, are awful people raised on often-racist melodrama (OK, #notallaudiences), we keep expecting something terrible to happen at this point. But, no, Juan and Teresa genuinely care for the kid, whom we soon learned is nicknamed “Little” and could use a meal or two.
For Little’s hellscape is at home, where his single mother, Paula (Naomie Harris), is falling further into drugs and further away from caring for her son. Juan and Teresa’s home becomes a shelter from the storm for Little, a place for a meal and some positive attention. Ali is stunning throughout, equally at home working the corner, taking Little to the ocean and showing him how to float and hanging his head in complicated shame when Little asks him if he sells drugs, the abstract thing Little is increasingly aware is ruining his mother’s (and his) life.
We next see Chiron as a teenager (Ashton Sanders, all skinny limbs). The bullying has not stopped, his mother is even more of an abusive mess and Teresa can only do so much. Chiron, ever isolated, seems to have one friend, a teen named Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), whose swagger Chiron finds hypnotic.
Happy to brag about being caught in flagrante with a girl, Kevin is also interested in Chiron, the latter of whom seems unsure of how his sexuality even works. The intimate moments between them are thoughtful, elegant and hopeful, which makes the events that occur in the days that follow that much more devastating.
In the final, stunning third, we find Chiron — now called “Black” and played beautifully by former University of Texas runner Trevante Rhodes — in Atlanta. He has remade himself entirely in Juan’s image — the car, the grill, the mid-level dealing. His life seems to contain no visible pleasure: We see him work out, lightly tease one of his dealers and avoid calls from his mother. He has been born again hard.
Then, out of the blue, 10 years since they last saw each other, Kevin (André Holland) calls.
Again, the moments build, but never to anything like a traditional catharsis. Jenkins seems in perfect command of the puzzle pieces, from the elegant score (and stellar music supervision) to Oscar-worthy editing from Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders. Little’s life never seems like poverty porn. Intimacies are delicately, almost respectfully handled. Nothing careens into awkwardness.
“At some point you gotta decide for yourself who you gonna be,” Juan says to Chiron after their beautiful swim. “Can’t let nobody make that decision for you.”
Of course, the life lesson is addressed to Chiron, but it’s relevant to everyone in “Moonlight,” from Paula to Juan to Kevin. It’s a question everyone struggles with every day. Matter of fact, it might be the question, in general. There’s a reason that this small, gorgeous movie about an African-American man struggling with his sexuality is required viewing for everyone, everywhere.
Starring: Trevante Rhodes, André Holland, Naomie Harris
Rating: R for some sexuality, drug use, brief violence and language throughout
Running time: 1 hour, 50 min
Theaters: Alamo South, Arbor, Violet Crown