A question is posed to the main character of Barry Jenkins' wondrous, superbly acted new film, Moonlight: "Who is you, man?" The beauty of Jenkins' second feature radiates from the way that query is explored. It is asked by a black man of another black man -- those too often not deemed worthy to be given a chance to respond to this most fundamental of inquiries.
Divided into three chapters, Moonlight tracks its protagonist, Chiron, in as many stages, each titled with his name or nickname: at ages nine ("Little," played by Alex Hibbert), 16 ("Chiron," Ashton Sanders) and approximately 26 ("Black," Trevante Rhodes). The film takes place primarily in Liberty City, a housing project in Miami where Jenkins grew up.
In the first section, Little finds refuge in a boarded-up dope house and holds an empty crack vial to the light, a stretch of silence that Hibbert, among the most watchful young performers I've ever seen, makes spellbinding. Juan (Mahershala Ali), a local drug kingpin, offers loving counsel: "You gotta decide who you gonna be. Can't let nobody make that decision for you." But others have already made up their minds about who Little is: "soft," "a faggot." The taunting and abuse become worse in Moonlight's middle section, all while teenage Chiron struggles to make sense of his own desire. He is able to explore it with a friend named Kevin (played as a teenager by Jharrel Jerome) who shares his inchoate yearning.
A betrayal leads to an even swoonier kind of romance in the third section and a reunion -- filled with pain, regret, hurt and love -- that's almost too much to bear.