This is an achingly beautiful movie about a boy growing up, black and gay, with almost no help from adults along the way.
Let me stress one word: achingly.
“Moonlight” is a fine piece of work. The screenplay, acting, direction and cinematography are excellent.
It is the brutal and deeply personal coming-of-age story of a boy named Chiron. Its three sections show him tormented for his small size in childhood, tormented for his sexual orientation in high school and then, hardened by experience, as a young adult trying to work through the social isolation that helped him endure his upbringing.
Along the way, Chiron speaks very little. His single mother descends into addiction. A benevolent drug dealer briefly becomes a father figure in his childhood, offering short bursts of calm wisdom and common sense. Chiron’s only childhood friend turns on him in high school but then, 10 years later, comes back into his life.
The surrogate father and friend are Chiron’s only touchstones with normal human relationships. Remarkably, they are enough to sustain him, and he develops into a careful, thoughtful man, if still a lonely and self-contained one.
The source material for “Moonlight” is a play written by a gay black man who grew up in the Miami neighborhood where the film was shot. The director, who reworked the play into a screenplay, grew up in the same neighborhood and, like the playwright and the Chiron character, was raised by a mother with drug problems.
Much has been made about the fact that this is an entirely African American story, but its themes — alienation, sadness, and survival — are universal. Its setting and characters may be novelties in current movies, but they are also compelling for that reason.
Chiron (pronounced SHY-ron in the movie) almost certainly is named for a mythical Greek character, a centaur who was regarded as a wise, selfless teacher, and was distinguished from other centaurs by his self-control.