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Growing up black, poor and gay in 'Moonlight' (R)

A block party with a screening of "Moonlight" is one highlight of Miami's most subversive film festival.
A block party with a screening of "Moonlight" is one highlight of Miami's most subversive film festival.

The theme of “Moonlight,” writer-director Barry Jenkins’ melancholy meditation on one young man’s coming-of-age, is summed up in an early scene in the film. Ten-year-old Chiron (Alex Hibbert), a boy being raised by his mother (Naomie Harris) in Miami’s crime-ridden Liberty City neighborhood, is taught to swim by Juan (Mahershala Ali), a drug dealer who has become a surrogate for the kid’s absent father.

“At some point,” Juan tells the introspective boy, “you gotta decide for yourself who you’re going to be. You can’t let anyone make that decision for you.” That might make “Moonlight” sound familiar. But part of the magic of this miraculous movie is how it makes you feel like you’re seeing everything for the first time.

Jenkins, who was born and raised in the area where the film takes place, uses the city as more than just a backdrop. The Miami you see in “Moonlight” is not the usual tourist playground. This Miami is a different kind of paradise. The sunlight is still glorious, but this time it’s shining on the disenfranchised, giving their plight an uncommon clarity and realism. The film’s point of view is often subjective, capturing the action from the back seat of a car or the inside of a boarded-up crack den. Sometimes, the characters look directly into the camera. Here is what growing up poor and black — and surviving — looks like.

But Chiron, whose story is told in three chapters from different eras in his life, has an extra hurdle to overcome: He’s gay. “Moonlight” is based on an autobiographical story by actor/playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” that was written for the stage. Jenkins reworked the material into a movie that honors McCraney’s original intent but uses all the tools of the cinematic language to muster its formidable power.

Shot by cinematographer James Laxton, “Moonlight” uses bold primary colors (blue is particularly important) and a complex sound design for precision and impact: You don’t watch the movie as much as you experience it. This sort of delicate intimacy is rare in American films, and Jenkins, in only his second feature (after 2009’s “Medicine for Melancholy”), is already working at that level. He’s capable of showing you the world precisely as he sees it without depriving the film of vibrant spontaneity. 

When a group of boys plays soccer in an empty field using a wad of newspapers as a ball, the gorgeous sky and tropical foliage in the background look like paradise — until you realize the absence of things is a form of urban blight, too. When the teenage Chiron (Ashton Sanders) takes the Metrorail, the train takes him on a ride atop palm trees and skyscrapers, but he’s too dragged down by his life to notice the scenery.

And when the adult Chiron (Trevante Rhodes), now living in Atlanta, drives back home to Miami to visit his mom and confront his past, Caetano Veloso’s delicate rendition of “Cucurrucucú Paloma” plays on the soundtrack as he speeds down the turnpike — a tender, stirring anthem of tentative hope and uncontrollable longing. “Moonlight” is about bullying and homophobia, masculinity and black identity, parenting and the formative effects of the environment. But to reduce this beautiful, generous movie to bullet points is to do it a disservice. 

Near the end of the film, when Chiron sits down for dinner at Jimmy’s Eastside Diner with his lifelong friend Kevin (played as an adult by André Holland), “Moonlight” has built to such a crescendo your head starts to buzz. And yet the only thing at stake, really, is whether a man will be able to drop his guard — a defensive mechanism life has forced him to develop — and expose his bruised heart to another person, if only for a moment. Sometimes, the simplest, smallest things require the greatest courage. “Moonlight” is Miami’s first bonafide movie masterpiece. 

Cast: Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders, Alex Hibbert, Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Janelle Monáe, André Holland, Jharrel Jerome, Jaden Piner.

Writer-director: Barry Jenkins. Based on “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue” by Tarell Alvin McCraney.

An A24 Films release. Running time: 110 minutes. Vulgar language, sexual situations, drug use, adult themes. In Miami-Dade: O Cinema Wynwood, South Beach, Aventura. Tarell Alvin McCraney will participate in a Q&A after the 7 p.m. screenings Friday and Saturday at O Cinema Wynwood. For info, call 305-571-9970.