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Alex Hibbert stars as the young Chiron, nicknamed “Little,” Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight.A24 / Elevation/Courtesy of A24 / Elevation Pictures

A dark yet tender coming-of-age tale already tipped for the Oscars, Barry Jenkins's excellent Moonlight is a film filled with bittersweet ironies. The first and most glaring in this three-act story set in the drug-infested Miami of the 1980s is this: The one person who can provide a kind and caring father-figure for the bullied young Chiron as his mother descends into addiction is the neighbourhood crack dealer.

The bitterness in that scenario is self-evident; the sweetness lies in the relationship between the powerful and knowing man and the silent and puzzled child, culminating in a remarkable scene where Juan (Mahershala Ali) teaches Chiron, nicknamed "Little" (Alex Hibbert), to swim.

As the camera bobs along at water level expressively reproducing his sense that he's about to be swamped, Little must trust that if he lies back in the ocean this stranger will not let him go.

But Juan's protection cannot last.

Little is the continual target of bullies and in the film's second act (where a delicate Ashton Sanders takes over the role of the pained and recalcitrant adolescent Chiron), that violence will shape his future.

"You gonna tell him why the other boys kick his ass all the time?" Chiron's mother Paula (Naomie Harris) yells at Juan as she rejects his help.

Another bittersweet irony of Moonlight is that this is a coming-out story that can never say the word gay. The machismo of the culture that surrounds Chiron, on the streets and at school, is so dominant, the boy seems to have no context to understand his own feelings. And that culminates in another finely wrought scene where the teenage Chiron makes a fleeting sexual connection with his one friend, Kevin (Jharrel Jerome).

Where will this impossibility lead? It would spoil the experience of Moonlight to reveal what kind of person the surprising adult Chiron has become by the third act, where he's played by Trevante Rhodes in a performance that successfully captures a split personality of sensitivity and swagger.

Depicting both Chiron and Kevin at three stages of life, Jenkins has drawn wonderfully subtle performances from his ensemble – which also includes Jaden Piner as the youngest Kevin and André Holland as the adult one – while maintaining coherent personalities across the ages.

The script was adapted by Jenkins from a play by Tarell McCraney and, on a handful of occasions, the film does suffer from a certain theatricality. There is that forced explanation of the symbolic title – a story told by Juan about some Caribbean woman who told him that "in moonlight, black boys look blue" (which is the full title of the original play). There's also a rehab scene of emotional account-settling with a tearful Paula that seems to betray the film's purposefully narrow perspectives.

But mainly these characters live their circumscribed existences entirely in a monosyllabic present without benefit of the verbose self-knowledge that drives plays: Jenkins offers a notably cinematic understanding of the story. There is no explanation of why Paula, who works in a hospital, succumbs to crack; this is Miami's reality and the only one Chiron knows. Similarly, there is no great reckoning between the friends when Kevin joins in the bullying in high school; this is the social hierarchy in which the boys must operate.

James Laxton's jagged and swirling camera work reveals these points of view with an expressionistic wobble that feels original without seeming pretentious, reproducing the physical experience of Little's frenzy as he runs from the other boys or the gentle threat of the ocean's waves. The film's final chapter, which is set almost entirely at night, is shot with a shimmering darkness that seems to summarize the ambivalence of Moonlight's conclusion.

By now "Little" has become "Black," the new nickname suggesting the heartbreaking things that this quiet drama has to say about the macho construction of African-American masculinity. The film ends with another small gesture of intimacy, leaving an audience to wonder if this is enough to qualify as hope.

It certainly qualifies as Oscar-worthy, although it will be difficult to pick a best-actor nominee from the three leads who share the screen so evenly; look instead to see a best-supporting nomination for Ali's clever work on Juan, the sympathetic crack dealer. And, of course, there will be the best-director and best-picture categories. As the public reception of Nate Parker's The Birth of a Nation has withered, critical plaudits are now pushing Moonlight toward Academy members who desperately need to recognize some diversity after the #OscarsSoWhite controversy earlier this year.

Happily, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has in Moonlight exactly the kind of small, smart film that the Awards should be recognizing more often. Whether it will actually win is another matter: Jenkins's script and his direction are bracingly free of the sentimentality Oscar so loves.

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