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Review: 'Moonlight' is a modest masterpiece, and quite possibly the best film of 2016

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Barry Jenkins' Moonlight is a story of a black life uniquely mattering in movies.

Not as a crusader for justice, although eventually there's that to be discovered. Not as an entertainer or overachiever, those African-American icons to whom Hollywood typically resorts because they're easier to sell while suggesting the industry "cares."

Instead, Moonlight shines on three phases and faces of a life that would otherwise be cast aside or closeted. Call him Little as a bullied child, his given name Chiron as a troubled teenager and Black as an unfulfilled adult. He's young, not especially gifted, black and gay.

Moonlight's narrative is shaped by Tarell Alvin McCraney's shelved stage play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, set in Miami's tough Liberty City district, where McCraney and Jenkins both grew up but never met in childhood. Their collaboration practically vibrates with authenticity, a sense of unique place and unsure purpose, gliding like a dream from which one doesn't wish to awaken.

Part of that entrancement is due to James Laxton's camera, restless as the hard knock lives orbiting Little and Chiron then decelerating as Black struggles to locate his chill. Jenkins tells this coming-of-self story in three chapters, with almost all characters recast at each stage. Another off-balance touch is Moonlight's musical score, in part classical themes contrasting with circumstances.

Moonlight begins by introducing Juan (Mahershala Ali), a neighborhood crack dealer. Nine-year-old Little (Alex Hibbert) runs past him, chased by bullies. Little won't speak, so Juan takes him to girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe) to coax out a home address. His single mother turns out to be Paula (Naomie Harris), a customer of Juan's unable to care for herself, much less her son. Familiar emotional turf that's artfully enriched; Juan and Teresa's domesticity isn't a drug dealer's typical movie life, just as Little's restroom curiosity and roughhousing with classmate Kevin (Jaden Piner) isn't coy.

Chapter 2 ages Little into Chiron (Ashton Sanders), 16 and sullen, clinging to some goodness from childhood while the worst clings to him. Only Kevin makes Chiron almost smile, when he isn't bragging about sex with girls.

Chapter 3 transforms Chiron into Black (Trevante Rhodes), still quiet yet unrecognizably muscular, with the gold grill swagger of a drug dealer, now living in Atlanta. Just as he is shaped by Juan's figure-fatherhood in Part 1, Black's future depends upon a life-changing event in Part 2 and an impulsive return to Liberty City and Kevin (André Holland).

MEET HIM: 'Moonlight' actor Andre Holland to do Q&A at Sundial in St. Petersburg

An outline can't convey the provocative depth of Jenkins' screenplay, challenging black masculinity comparable to what Brokeback Mountain did for white machismo. Moonlight is a different shock to the system, chipping away at a cultural monolith Hollywood erected.

Despite this story's harshness, Jenkins weaves a beautiful film, confident, even poetic in its understatement. Images linger: a silent scream, a hand clutching sand in ecstasy, a chef's special made more so by the expression of who's delivering. Scenes arc and resonate like short films: Juan's kitchen table advice to Little while sorting his own feelings, an erotic beach tryst and a tentative reunion sequence begging to be watched again.

The latter passage showcases performances that must be remembered at awards time. Rhodes reveals Black's brutish exterior as his emotional armor, a man-child longing for intimacy his life denied. Holland plays older Kevin as deftly conflicted by Black's arrival, until a confession seals their connection. Ali's magnetic, textured portrayal of Juan hangs over this movie long after his departure.

Jenkins' movie ends on a grace note of destiny and a ghost from Black's past, looking blue in the Miami moonlight, a life that never stopped mattering even when unclear about why. Moonlight is a modest masterpiece, and quite possibly the best film of 2016.

Contact Steve Persall at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.

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