Mahershala Ali and Alex R Hibbert in Moonlight
Mahershala Ali and Alex R Hibbert in Moonlight

Moonlight is too abstract a title for this gritty, streetwise portrait of a young man’s growth into a fearsome screen presence who comes to embrace his twofold transformation — as a bullied black kid into one you would not wish to meet, and his self-acceptance as gay on his own strong terms.

But the story is redacted from Tarell McCraney’s In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, a play far from any Valentine sogginess.

The film — a lustrous achievement that should earn Oscars — undercuts expectations, and never judges choices lived out by its protagonist, Chiron (played by three actors: Alex R Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes). With the fluidity of assured stagecraft Chiron enacts his life in three phases.

First he is a lost child with a crack-addled mom (Naomie Harris), no visible father, and tormented as a “faggot” at school.

By the end he is called “Black”, a figure of police attention — though his brutality is tempered with almost-silent altruism. In this world of clamorous rap and shady deals he finds his own way. No-one (neither the vague white establishment, nor prison) truly understands him, except his lifelong friend Kevin and a drug-dealer (Mahershala Ali) and the dealer’s woman (Janelle Monáe) who, against stereotypes, teach him “how to be a man”.

The housing project in Miami where they live out their cramped existence is not the slum the average cinemagoer has learnt to expect — it’s neat, almost sedate; and, again, is not to “blame” for the futility of their lives. Chiron will ultimately leave and (like his mentor) deal drugs elsewhere. Here, perhaps, there is a slight tang of reproach: Chiron appears to have had no other choice in this emptiness.

The current title of this eloquent film evokes an era of romance — and here again we have a touch of the unexpected. Without spoiling the end, if hard facts are truly what so many have to live by, it’s worth noting that Moonlight, in almost a perverse manner, slashes through expectations. The film is actually less heartfelt than its major Oscar competitor, La La Land, which ends in a dreamworld.

His image is given full body in the sequence in which his surrogate father (the dealer) gives Chiron a swimming lesson and introduces him to the sea. The intent, fully realised, is that under the waves you will drown. But if you swim, you will overcome your fears and maybe survive.

Written and directed by Barry Jenkins

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