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Barry Jenkins' 'Moonlight' makes the case for quiet eloquence at the Toronto International Film Festival

Chiron, the lonely young black man we see growing up before our eyes in “Moonlight,” doesn’t say much. Yet everything about him — his sad, downcast eyes, his drooping posture, his visible discomfort in the presence of others — seems to summon forth and express an entire world of feeling. This extraordinarily intimate movie, beautifully directed by Barry Jenkins (making his first feature since 2008’s “Medicine for Melancholy”), works in much the same way. It observes Chiron’s silence, respects it and to some degree absorbs it. In Jenkins’ hands, the cold, mechanical apparatus of the camera becomes nothing less than a conduit for human empathy.

Loosely adapted from Tarell McCraney’s play “Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” Jenkins’ film is a character study in three acts that immerses us in Chiron’s tough upbringing on the sunny, crooked streets of Miami. Over the course of more than a decade, this quiet kid will be neglected, abused, chased, bullied and at one point incarcerated, but also blessed by gestures of kindness and generosity from unexpected sources. He will experience a powerful, forbidden moment of sexual awakening that will be suddenly, cruelly turned on its head — and then revisited, years later, with infinite patience and tenderness.

Chiron is played by a different actor in each of the film’s three acts (they are Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes), which makes the continuity of feeling all the more remarkable. The actors don’t bear an especially close physical resemblance to one another — partly due to a decisive physical transformation that the character experiences at one key juncture — but they’re all of a soulful, taciturn piece nonetheless. That’s very much to Jenkins’ point. He’s made a film that urges the viewer to look past Chiron’s outward appearance and his superficial signifiers of identity, climbing inside familiar stereotypes in order to quietly dismantle them from within.

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Already warmly received at Telluride, “Moonlight” sent a palpable surge of emotion through the packed theater where it had its first Toronto International Film Festival screening Saturday night. (It’s playing in the festival’s Platform competition.) I expect that it will have a similar effect wherever it plays, and while I have yet to consult the latest dispatches, it’s clear that the busy, creaky machinery of Oscar season — driven by journalists and frequently set in motion at festivals like Toronto and Telluride — has already begun to grind in the movie’s favor.

Over the next several months, the plaudits and trophies that are likely headed in the direction of Jenkins and his exceptional cast and crew will be attributed, in ways both complimentary and condescending, to the fact that “Moonlight” fills an obvious demographic void. Films about African American LGBT youth have never been the industry’s stock in trade, and at a time of intense outcry against the systemic devaluation of black lives as well as the underrepresentation of minority artists, Jenkins’ film functions as a rare and important corrective.

But to praise the film purely for its politically righteous subject matter — or worse, to suggest that it’s playing the diversity card, as some vapidly contrarian think-piece is sure to argue down the line — is to risk understating the aesthetic choices that make it not a sociopolitical tract, but a singular piece of cinema.

Jenkins and his cinematographer, James Laxton, work in a key of lyrically heightened realism that feels no less deeply American for being so richly informed by various European and Asian art-film influences. (A long, gorgeous sequence set in a diner reminded me of nothing so much as Wong Kar-wai’s “Happy Together,” and Jenkins himself noted during a Q&A that the film’s triptych structure was partly inspired by Hou Hsiao-hsien’s “Three Times.”) The film isn’t diminished by these associations; it’s completed, fulfilled. “Moonlight” is thoughtful and harrowing, sensual and earthy, achingly romantic and uncommonly wise. It doesn’t say much; it says everything.

Jenkins isn’t the only filmmaker in Toronto who understands the basic cinematic power of everyday human lives seen in warm, sympathetic closeup. Kelly Reichardt’s “Certain Women,” which screened here after its premiere earlier this year at Sundance, is a gorgeous triptych of stories (adapted from the work of Maile Meloy) concerning four remarkably unremarkable Montana women: a harried lawyer (Laura Dern), a brittle wife and mother (Michelle Williams), a mild-mannered teacher (Kristen Stewart) and her equally quiet student (superb newcomer Lily Gladstone).

On paper, the movie sounds like an unusually complicated bit of storytelling business from a director well known in cinephile circles for her less-is-more approach (“Old Joy,” “Wendy and Lucy”). But unlike many writers and directors working with overlapping narratives, Reichardt doesn’t treat her characters as pawns in a grandiose narrative scheme designed to illustrate how fatefully interconnected (or sadly isolated) we are. Absent the genre trappings of her two excellent previous films, “Night Moves” and “Meek’s Cutoff,” “Certain Women” finds a piercing clarity in its characters’ anxious silences and their tentative, utterly believable attempts to forge connections. It could be Reichardt’s loveliest, most effortlessly absorbing movie to date.

“After the Storm,” the latest family drama from the Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda, is cut from entirely different dramatic and stylistic cloth, and yet its warm observational style is no less perceptive. Set during an unusually active typhoon season, the film centers around Ryota (Hiroshi Abe), a divorced dad and onetime novelist who’s now eking out a living as a private investigator — a premise that initially sends out some intriguing noirish vibes. But Ryota’s detective work ultimately draws him back toward the family he’s long neglected, as he tries to bond with his young son (Taiyo Yoshizawa) and halfheartedly rekindle affections with his ex-wife (Yoko Maki). Nudging everyone gently from the sidelines is Ryota’s mother (Kirin Kiki, who previously starred with Abe in Kore-eda’s “Still Walking”).

After this film and his underrated “I Wish” (2011), it’s hard to think of another filmmaker who maps the emotional landscape of divorce-torn families as precisely as Kore-eda, who always steers his characters toward reconciliation and understanding without saccharine. Predicated on the revelatory power of shared meals and small talk, “After the Storm” builds to a scene of three people running around in a heavy downpour — a wistful, funny and indelible vision of a family coming together to chase an impossibly happy dream.

It may be cruelly unfair to compare a master of immersive realism like Kore-eda with a first-time filmmaker, but as portraits of shattered families go, “American Pastoral,” Ewan McGregor’s well-meaning, under-textured directing debut, never finds its way. Philip Roth’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1997 novel was, of course, about far more than just one family; it was, like so much of the author’s fiction, a seething collision of ideas, an expansive howl of despair at the erosion of traditional values and social unity in the wake of the traumas of the 1960s. The film’s strongest expression of that despair is Dakota Fanning’s fine, chilling performance as a dangerously radicalized teenager, in a subplot that takes on a shade more resonance in the age of ISIS and a new generation of parent-child alienation.

The rest of the film is more hit-and-miss, and mostly miss — hampered by a lumpy, undigested narrative, an overly faithful framing device and a hard-working but miscast McGregor in the central role of Swede Levov, the Newark, N.J., man who watches with mounting desperation and horror as his family slips away. Earlier this year, James Schamus’ well-received “Indignation” — incidentally, another first feature directed by an industry veteran — offered hopeful evidence that adapting Roth to the screen might not be the fool’s errand that past films (“The Human Stain,” “Portnoy’s Complaint”) have been. “American Pastoral,” well-meaning and under-realized, suggests that Schamus’ film may well have been the exception that proves the rule.

justin.chang@latimes.com

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