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'Moonlight' is an illuminating look at maturity

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Jaden Piner (left) and Mahershala Ali in "Moonlight." A24 photo

Chiron (Alex Hibbert), known as Little, is the kind of boy who suffers for being different. Too young to be at all certain of his sexuality, he is nevertheless gay-bashed by his peers. And his unstable but judgmental mother (Naomie Harris) is no help. Fortunately, Little attracts the fatherly interest of Juan (Mahershala Ali), who deals drugs but turns out to be the friend he badly needs.

In high school, and now going by his given name, Chiron (Ashton Sanders) becomes the target of bullies who are even more aggressively homophobic. About the only person he can turn to is Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), who has a reputation for being a womanizer that may be more of a ploy for acceptance than a signal of his true sexual orientation.

As an adult, Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) comes to be known as Black — a name given to him by Kevin. Bulked up and barely recognizable as either of his younger selves, he’s also more than a bit lonely. But once in a while, a hint of who he once was rises to the surface.

The question is whether he can reclaim his innocence, or is doomed to be the man that society made him against his will.

Based on a play by Tarell McCraney, “Moonlight” traces one man’s transition from brutal childhood to somber maturity. Writer-director Barry Jenkins (“Medicine for Melancholy”) delivers a drama that addresses a certain aspect of African-American life, but with insight instead of clichés.

The performances are spot-on. Ali brings depths of feeling to Juan, giving us a drug dealer we haven’t seen before. Harris (Miss Moneypenny in the recent Bond films) is uncomfortably authentic as an ultimately repentant junkie.

Rhodes connects with the sensitivity that the world-hardened Black can’t quite deny. And the wonderful André Holland (“The Knick”) is beguilingly empathetic as the adult Kevin.

Basking in this “Moonlight” is one of the cinematic joys of the year.

What “Moonlight” • 3½ stars out of four • Run time 1:51 • Rating R • Content Sexuality, drug use, violence, language


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