TORONTO - The shimmering glow of Barry Jenkins' "Moonlight," a poetic coming-of-age tale told across three chapters about a young gay black kid growing up in a poor, drug-ridden neighbourhood of Miami, has lit up this year's fall film festival circuit like no other film.
Following its much-lauded debut at the Telluride Film Festival last week and leading up to its bow Saturday at the Toronto International Film Festival, "Moonlight" has been received with an overflowing of emotion and acclaim. It's an uncannily intimate portrait of a young man's identity being formed, in fits and starts, both painful and beautiful, with profound reverberations about black America.
The film, executive produced by Brad Pitt, has, among other things, established its director as a major talent in cinema. It's Jenkins' second film, coming eight years after his well-received 2008 feature debut, "Medicine for Melancholy." ''Moonlight" will also land at the upcoming New York Film Festival before hitting theatres Oct. 21.
"Very rarely do you realize 'I'm living one of my dreams' in the present tense," Jenkins said Friday in Toronto, having come straight from Telluride and still elated by his film's reception.
"Moonlight" is based on the play "In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue" by Tarell Alvin McCraney, who, like his protagonist Chiron, grew up homosexual outside Miami, the son of a crack-addicted mother. Though Jenkins is heterosexual, he comes from the same area and his mother was also an addict.
"When I read Tarell's play, I saw myself literally," says Jenkins, whose film takes details, like warming bathwater on the stove, from his own impoverished upbringing. "It was empathy but it was empathy on a different level. So I'm all over it. That is all my childhood."
"Moonlight" follows Chiron in three separate, chronological stages and through three separate actors. Alex Hibbert plays him as a shy, uncertain, bullied boy; Ashton Sanders plays him an awkward teen, awakening to his sexuality; and Trevante Rhodes is Chiron as a hardened adult.
"I was like: They don't have to look alike. Their skin tone should be somewhat similar," says Jenkins of their casting. "But it's got to be this feeling and they have to have the same eyes. We really cast those guys for their eyes."
The power of "Moonlight" comes substantially from the way each version of Chiron is a boiling mix of confusion under the surface, as he tries to figure out who he is.
"It's not a loquacious film. There's a lot of space and a lot of silence," says Jenkins. "I always approached it as: You have to hone in on these moments. I did think that you could get more out of watching someone respond and react to a very simple ripple in the formation of their identity than three hours of going through these small, incremental waves."
For Jenkins, that interior, unspoken existence has a larger meaning.
"There's something in the way black men grow up in this country," he says. "There's a lot of information on these men's faces when they're not speaking, partly because we're robbed of our voices so much by society and the things society projects on us."
In the intervening years between his feature debut and "Moonlight," Jenkins spent a number of them trying to make a film with Focus Features' James Schamus and John Lyons, whom Jenkins credits for taking him under their wing. The movie, which never came to fruition, he says, was too high-concept and too ambitious. "It was about time travel and Stevie Wonder," he says, chuckling. "It was out there."
When the suggestion of adapting McCraney's play came up, Jenkins hesitated.
"When this play first came to me, I was scared. Can this be my second film? I don't know," he says. "But there was something about it that just grabbed me. I think I would have been too afraid of the material in 2009. That voice in the back of my head would have been saying: You can't do this for your second film. You have to somehow build."
Instead, Jenkins found a new direction by, for the first time, returning to his own life.
"I was not living my full identity by not putting that into my work," says Jenkins. "So here we are."