Barry Jenkins' Moonlight is a triptych tale delving into the childhood, adolescence, and adulthood of a young gay black man immersed in poverty and the drug trade in Southern Florida.
That summary may sound like a recipe for lectures and melodrama. But the life of Chiron (played by three different actors at different ages) is instead a quiet, reflective coming-of-age story of a young man learning how to fit in, but also to find himself, in what is at times a harsh culture. The viewer watches Chiron working around his mother's drug problems as a child, coming to terms with his sexuality as a teen, and reflecting on how all these experiences inform the decisions he makes as a man.
Drug dealing and addiction, violence, desperation, bullying, and incarceration all play important roles in the story, but Chiron's life story is not framed as a warning or even a tragedy, though it is at times achingly emotional. Moonlight doesn't preach. It simply lives.
The result is a more powerful exposé of the decay and dysfunction wrought upon poor minorities by decades of the drug war than any compilations of statistics. But even that laudable goal plays back seat to the film's fundamental humanity.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Moonlight".