As wise Meryl Streep said the other week: "An actor's only job is to enter the lives of people who are different from us and let you feel what that feels like."

Well here's to you Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes (and director Barry Jenkins). Good job all round. Great job, in fact.

Because Moonlight is one of those rare immersive big-screen experiences. Much like Richard Linklater's Boyhood, it makes an affecting emotional epic out of intimate observations about what it's like growing up.

Moonlight emerges as a heart-breaking coming-of-age drama as it traces the life of Chiron, a gay black guy from troubled childhood through dangerous adolescence to manhood.

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The three actors playing him as boy, teenager and man may not look like the same person. Sanders is a teenage beanpole. Flash forward a few years and Rhodes' physique shows the benefit of his character's time in the gym, during an unseen stint in juvenile detention.

But their equally soul-bruised performances are something else. And they're not the only ones. It's a film of abundant stand-out supporting turns, including one from House of Cards/Luke Cage star Mahershala Ali as Juan, a Miami drug dealer who takes the young Chiron under his paternal wing, his character feeling like a cousin to The Wire's Omar Little in his mix of gangster menace and humanity.

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Alex Hibbert plays Chiron as a young child in Moonlight. Photo/Supplied
Alex Hibbert plays Chiron as a young child in Moonlight. Photo/Supplied

Likewise, Naomie Harris' turn as Chiron's single mother, who descends into crack addiction and prostitution somehow manages to make playing the worst movie mother of many a year into a sympathetic character.

Adapted from a play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney by second-time feature director Barry Jenkins, Moonlight is delivered in three chapters covering important periods in Chiron's life as he grows up in a Miami housing project, knowing from a young age he is different to the other boys who frequently bully him and call him names.

There's something captivating about the fine-brush storytelling here. It's a film feeling as if it's built more on the stuff that stays vivid in your memory rather than life-changing plot points.

Some major events happen in the various intervening years between the chapters, including that jail time and at least one character death. But as the three chapters unfurl, the film never becomes over-burdened with exposition.

Seen here, it's a place shot in vivid colours that give a sun-baked glare to the social desolation. Likewise, although there is a smattering hip-hop and R&B on the soundtrack - and soul-funk star Janelle Monae is among the cast - Moonlight's music leans towards elegant classical pieces, which reinforce the feeling of the film as a chamber piece.

And although it has a drug dealer as a pivotal figure, it's a movie which eschews the usual hip-hop veneration towards his line of business.

Trevante Rhodes and Andre Holland as the older Chrion and Kevin. Photo/Supplied
Trevante Rhodes and Andre Holland as the older Chrion and Kevin. Photo/Supplied

When young Chiron is eating a home-cooked meal at Juan's comfortable home he asks his mentor: "My mama does drugs? And you sell drugs?" It's one of many quiet scenes in a movie that speaks volumes about the difficult world Chiron must navigate.

It is a gay coming-of-age film but a relatively chaste one. Undoubtedly that has helped this relatively modest movie become something of a cause celebre this awards season, especially in the era of Black Lives Matter.

It's also, eventually, heart-burstingly romantic. This may be a movie that is keeping it real for most of its time on screen but in the end, Moonlight fair glows with possibility and hope.


Cast: Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Shariff Earp, Duan Sanderson, Alex Hibbert
Director: Barry Jenkins
Rating: M (violence, offensive language, drug use & sex scenes)
Running time: 111 mins
Verdict: Gritty, graceful gay rites of passage drama