Moonlight is one kind of thing I do not like much at all: a coming-of-age story involving the protagonist's sexual awakening (it is, to be fair, an excellent one; but it's my least-favorite genre in narrative art. Consider my bias fully disclosed). It is also one thing I like very much: a structural experiment, in which giant time jumps are used to move us through enormously consequential developments in the life of the main character and the supporting cast alike. The effect isn't that we're meant to solve it like a puzzle, figuring out what happened when we weren't looking; it's much more to quietly insist that, whatever might have happened, these moments where we spend time with him are what really matter, and no matter how much we might be frustrated by the apparent elisions, they're not what the character cares about, so we just need to get over it. I entirely adore this, but not nearly enough to put the film anywhere near the hallowed title, "Best of the Year", which I mention just to forewarn you that by the standards of the rapturous reception the film has received so far, I think that this 3.5/5 review is still enough to make me count as a "hater".

Expanded from the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell McCraney, Moonlight a story of three African-American men, who all happen to be the same person. In the first of the roughly equal-length, non-overlapping segments, the film touches upon the 9-year-old child Chiron, known to the few people who have any idea he exists as Little (Alex Hibbert), a quasi-orphan in Miami who is found one day by a drug dealer, Juan (Mahershala Ali). Juan and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe) take Little in and as much as they can offer him the shelter and affection that are both deprived to him by his mother Paula (Naomie Harris). Also providing aid and comfort is fellow boy Kevin (Jaden Piner), who is a proper little pint-size tough man in all the places that Little is tentative and delicate, and who provides Little with the advice and tools he needs to survive a hard world of bullies and cruelty. Seven years later, Chiron is going by his given name (and is played by Ashton Sanders), when he and Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) cross paths again, this time with a charge of sexual attraction: years after being attacked by the other kids for being in some indistinct way unmanly, Chiron is starting to figure out that he's gay, and Kevin has come along at just the right time to help him work out those feelings and experience physical love for the first time (the boys kiss; it's not clear exactly how far they go beyond that). Many years later, Chiron has embraced the most stereotypical persona of African-American masculinity he can muster up, with gold-capped teeth and all, and is going by the blunt-force nickname Black (Trevante Rhodes). But when the camera moves in close, we can still see the boy-that-was in his eyes - as, indeed, writer-director Barry Jenkins has indicated that he cast the three roles based primarily on seeing similarities in the three actors' eyes; and while they only kind of look alike (Sanders looks absolutely nothing like Hibbert and Rhodes), it's impossible not to sense the shared spirit moving between them. Anyway, Black and Kevin (André Holland) end up meeting once more, and to say anything else would be very shabby, though it's not a typical ending or easy way out that Jenkins gives the characters or the audience.

The last third of Moonlight is, for this reason and others, certainly the most invigorating (which is annoying, because for reasons of spoiler sensitivity, it's the one I'm obliged to be the cagiest about); it's no coincidence that it's also the one most completely invented by Jenkins for the movie, with no analogue in McCraney's story. Which means, among other things, that it's saved from the somewhat overly-stagey, hyper-litery metaphors that at times trip up the first two segments, especially the Little plotline. In a film whose cast is supernaturally good throughout, Rhodes manages to give the best performance, and that despite being one of the most untested actors with easily the hardest part to play. Black has learned to deal with the world by closing himself off from it, and so spends most of his screentime watching and not speaking; the deep emotions Rhodes manages to put over even despite being deprived of even one solitary acting showpiece are absolutely staggering. We see his wounds, we see his longing, and we see his defensively hostile response to the world's hatred of people who look like him and have his background, and we see these things almost solely in the way the actor positions his head as he sits in a diner booth, for example.

The end of Moonlight genuinely is that "one of the year's best movies" that people talk about, but as for the rest, I have my reservations. There's not a solitary "bad" thing in the film. Certainly not in the performances or the characters, who collectively make up the kind of community rarely seen in movies except on the very edges, and who are never treated with this amount of dignity. Take Juan: it's a miraculous strength of the script to depict him as a kind, fatherly figure, while also noting without any moral panic or judgment that he is mostly responsible for suffering, and Ali plays the role to perfection: take the moment when he watches Little making the painful mental calculation that, since his mother is a crack addict and that's why she's kind of terrible, and since Juan sells crack, that means... The shame that flickers across Ali's face, but with no indication that he'll stop selling crack, or that he'd even refuse to sell crack to Paula if she asked for it, is pretty powerful stuff.

For all that generosity and insight, it's all a bit overdetermined; the enormous superiority of the final act relative to the first two speaks to how much of the material needed to be reconceived a little bit more thoroughly. People talk like they're in a play, not like they're in a movie, in the way we rarely see any more given that prestige theatrical adaptations aren't the big deal they were in the '50s and '60s; the actors do a huge amount to compensate for that, but it still an omnipresent flaw, one that tends to flatten the emotional tenor of the material.

The other convention of stage-to-movie transfers that Moonlight suffers from is an erratic visual style, which is different from saying that it doesn't work, and certainly doesn't mean that Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton weren't putting an enormous amount of effort into their choices. It is in fact a very palpably thought-through visual schema, sometimes to its enormous benefit (the shots from behind Little/Chiron/Black's head throughout the movie are close to genius in the way they let us perceive his sense of the world while forbidding us to get a clear sense of the inner turmoil of this most aggressively insular, defensive young man), and sometimes not. Frankly, a lot of the film's imagery is heavily overdetermined, attempting to mix boots-on-the-ground realism in capturing the physical essence of the neighborhood in Miami where both Jenkins and McCraney grew up, with lush and self-consciously poetic gestures that never feel quite as organic as they might. It doesn't help that the film opens with its most unnecessary, even aggravating stylistic flourish: the camera revolves around a conversation, making several complete circles and generally being a tiny bit nauseating, while adding nothing of value other than to confirm that, like so many ambitious indie filmmakers, Jenkins thinks very highly of Martin Scorsese's aesthetic.

I would probably sum up the visual direction this way: it is great, but laboriously so ("visual", I say, but it extends to the soundtrack as well: Moonlight grabs from both rap music and classical music to flesh out its sonic landscape, and the results are a noble failure like I haven't seen since Sofia Coppola couldn't decide how heavily to commit to pop music when Marie Antoinette was in post). You can feel the effort it took to make the film this good, which is a little bit deflating, but on the other hand: it is very good, and much better this than the kind of slick indie that was easy to make and looks that way.