We go to the movies for all sorts of reasons. Some of us are looking for an escape, to forget about the stresses of life, to lose themselves in fantastical creatures or powerful superheroes. Others seek commiseration, a film that understands what they’re going through, for better or worse. Still others want to laugh or watch things explode or scare themselves silly. Some want all of the above and more, to be taken over by the emotion of the moviehouse. Roger Ebert described movies as machines that generate empathy, and he was right. No matter the subject, the genre, personal taste or circumstance, everyone has a movie that hits them just right. Sometimes, though, there comes a cinematic experience so astonishingly felt that it pours forth empathy like an uncontrolled waterfall. Sometimes, we get Moonlight.

Written and directed by Barry Jenkins, Moonlight follows the life of Chiron, a black boy from Miami in three distinct acts: childhood, adolescence and adulthood. With no father and a mother (Naomie Harris) awash in crack addiction, the boy, Little (Alex Hibbert) falls into the arms of a drug dealer, Juan (Mahershala Ali) and his girl Teresa (Janelle Monae) who show him the sort of kindness he never gets from his mom or his “friends” despite Juan’s connection to the trade destroying Little’s family. In the second sequence of the triptych, the now teenaged Chiron (Ashton Sanders) finds his life teetering on the brink, relentlessly bullied at school as his mother’s desperate condition worsens, finding one a tiny bit of respite in the continuing support of Teresa and one of his only real companions at school, Kevin (Jhamal Jerome). Finally, fully grown, hardened after a stint in prison and reborn as “Black” (Trevante Rhodes), Chiron comes to grips with the man he has become and what he left behind by traveling from his new digs in Atlanta back to Miami for a surprise visit to Kevin (Andre Holland) at his diner after many years apart. Put together, we get a portrait of what it can mean to be a disadvantaged black man in today’s world.

The genius of Moonlight lies in the way it preys on stereotypes and expectations, breaking down what makes a man like Chiron who he is, the sum of all the parts that forged his identity, even if he himself doesn’t entirely understand who he is or should be. His journey from a shy, profoundly introverted and afraid little boy to the man he becomes is a profoundly heartbreaking experience to watch, as the path to Black is laid before him at such an early age and throughout his life, and there never seems to be another way through life open to him. It’s a sobering experience to see the life beaten out of his eyes over and over again, his head forever cast down into his lap until he is pushed too far and simply cannot take it anymore. No one should have to go through youth without a rudder, and Jenkins pulls no punches in demonstrating just how easy it is to have it all drain away. The three act structure becomes a powerful tool, allowing Jenkins to focus in on those little moments that make us who we are without getting lost in the minutiae of growing up that is so often thrown into coming of age films.Comparisons to Boyhood are likely inevitable, and while Jenkins did not spend twelve years making Moonlight, it manages to feel just as authentic and lived in as Richard Linklater’s seminal film, an impressive feat indeed, especially for a second feature.

Of course, without the real time shooting schedule, Jenkins must go for the more conventional route of recasting the characters in each act. It can often be a fiendishly difficult task for a director, but Jenkins passes his test with flying colors, putting together a formidable trio of actors to bring Chiron’s development into sharp relief. Young Mr. Hibbert is the Platonic ideal of sympathy and vulnerability, with giant, expressive doe eyes and an extreme distrust for anyone and anything. We meet him hiding from bullies in a crack den, and he strikes an eminently pitiable figure, thus establishing the rush of sympathy that comes from everyone in his life letting him down. Ashton Sanders matures Chiron into a young man, the world having squeezed the spirit from him. He still casts his eyes down when confronted, but a fire lurks beneath, stoked by years of fending for himself, making him more of a caged animal. By the time Trevante Rhodes takes over, he seems entirely alien from the boy he once was, the crushing reality of a life gone sideways settling in, the one male role model he ever had having a clear impact on his final form. But the beauty of Moonlight lies in the way that the vulnerability, sexual confusion and conflict of life itself still rears its head even as Black tries to shut it all out. He may not want to admit it, but he’s still the Little who got swimming lessons from an otherwise ruthless drug dealer and the Chiron who trusted his friends more than his mother. Each side of the triangle is equally weighted in importance to who this man was and is, even if he doesn’t really know the answers himself, and each performance is remarkable in its depth of character and feeling.

There is an overwhelming tenderness to Moonlight, an approach that makes watching what he becomes even more tragic. The film often feels improvised in its love for small moments and trivial conversations that reveal the truth at the heart of these characters. It brims over with vitality and verisimilitude, putting a real face to the struggles of disadvantaged black youths in the modern day, where prison is an inevitability and what really matters is how you emerge on the other side. Jenkins reinforces the strength in his narrative and assembled cast with eye-catching camera work that evolves alongside its characters and an effective, understated score from Nicholas Britell. Most importantly, Moonlight just works. There is not a single aspect of the production, not a single moment of the narrative, not a single performance out of step. It is rare that a film feels as unified, as naturally confident of itself, as this one does, and rarer still for it to be so satisfying on an intellectual and emotional level. Moonlight is the exact sort of film Roger Ebert had in mind when he described movies as empathy generating machines. It’s a shame Roger couldn’t have been here to see this one. He would have loved it.