MOONLIGHT: Every young person’s life has periods where occurrences and people in their inner circle will define the “who” and “what” they become as adults. It’s a subject that was explored with great depth in Richard Linklater’s marvelous BOYHOOD (2014) and it’s handled with needed sensitivity in this independent film that follows the life of an urban black child named Chiron (Alex R. Hibbert) growing up on Miami’s mean streets. The first and second “episodes” of the movie are its most compelling since it frames Chiron’s childhood and his scrawny teenager (Ashton Sanders) years as a ceaseless struggle against bullies while he grapples with his own sexuality and a “crackhead” mother (Naomie Harris). Novice director/writer Barry Jenkins never shies away from the gritty realities of ghetto life including a sequence where Sanders is betrayed and assaulted by a lover (Jharrel Jerome) in a schoolyard gang fight that gives a sort of homage to COOL HAND LUKE (1967). When Chiron follows that up with a viciously brutal attack on his lead tormentor (Patrick Decile) in a classroom, we can’t help but applaud his “coming out” as a person who will no longer play “the victim” no matter the consequences of his act. The “final act” which focuses on Chiron as a young adult (Trevante Rhodes) finds him rather abruptly transformed into a “buff”, drug dealer sporting a plate of gold teeth similarly worn by a childhood mentor (Mahershala Ali). This portion of the movie lags in its pacing centered around a reunion with the former lover (Andre Holland) that’s far too murky and leaves too many issues unresolved. Has Chiron come to terms with his homosexuality? Why has this been the sole romantic relationship in his life? These remain a mystery that leave something of a chasm which should be linking the movie’s first and second “acts”. The strongest performances are from the supporting characters like Ali (THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON) as a kind-hearted drug dealer whose motives for looking after “little” Chiron are never fully explained. Equally good is Harris (SKYFALL) as the drug-addicted mother who achieves her own personal redemption in the concluding episode. Good movies have the ability to take you to worlds you’re not familiar with and this one is replete with authenticity and delivers an insightful meditation on what our culture’s concept of modern masculinity really is. CRITIC’S GRADE: B