(CNN) — Deeply affecting, “Moonlight” is a small, beautifully told story that resonates well beyond the time spent in the theater. Bleak, but not hopeless, it’s also one of those independent films that will rely on critical accolades and awards consideration to magnify its understated glow.
A second feature from writer-director Barry Jenkins, who adapted Tarell Alvin McCraney’s unproduced play in a manner that doesn’t suggest those stage roots, the story follows one young African-American through three distinct windows, played by a different actor in each time frame. As such, the attention on any one performer is somewhat blunted — in the way “Slumdog Millionaire” was — but the casting is impeccable at every stage.
The focus is on Chiron, known as Little (Alex Hibbert) when we first encounter him as a young boy. Growing up in Miami, he’s picked on by other kids and desperate to stay away from his crack-addicted mother (Naomie Harris).
Chiron finds unlikely refuge with a neighborhood drug dealer (Mahershala Ali, of “Luke Cage” and “House of Cards”), who treats the near-silent youth with unexpected tenderness and compassion, including the simple gesture of teaching him how to swim.
Flash ahead to his teens, and Chiron (Ashton Sanders) is coming to grips with his sexuality, which makes him a target for more abuse and bullying. Acting on those feelings affords a fleeting moment of exhilaration, but like so much in his life, cruelty is never far away from kindness. Even his mother’s slurred expression of affection toward him, saying, “You’re my only,” feels tainted under the circumstances.
The final chapter introduces Chiron going by the nickname Black (Trevante Rhodes), now a young man, whose path has been laid out, in hindsight, by everything that preceded this introduction. It’s a sobering realization that slowly peels back the ramifications of having been an outcast, while leaving questions — through Black reconnecting with his past — about the ability to break from those cycles.
Much of the early film-festival coverage of “Moonlight” singled it out as an exploration in particular of black masculinity, eliciting additional comparisons to the gay themes to “Brokeback Mountain.” But the movie proves universal in its coming-of-age aspects, due in no small part to the astonishing work by the young actors chosen as Little/Chiron and his peers, as well as Ali, Harris and singer Janelle Monae (in a strong acting debut) as the latter’s girlfriend.
The modestly scaled film’s gritty corners and vacant lots are a far cry from glamorous, fun-in-the-sun screen depictions of Miami. Yet if the city has seldom looked worse, “Moonlight” shines in a host of other ways.
“Moonlight” opens October 21. It’s rated R.