Like all great films, Moonlight is both specific and sweeping. It’s a story about identity—an intelligent, challenging work that wants viewers to reflect on assumptions they might make about the characters. It’s also a focused and personal work, a mental odyssey about the youth, adolescence, and adulthood of Chiron, who is growing up gay and black in Miami. From start to finish, the director Barry Jenkins’s new film balances the scope of its ambitions: The story weaves random memories and crucial life experiences into a tapestry, one that tries to unlock the shielded heart of its protagonist.

In short, Moonlight demands to be seen, even though the film is about a man who desperately wants to keep the audience at arm’s length. Inspired by the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney, Jenkins’s movie is a meditation on growing up, and the ways we all try to prevent ourselves from standing out or getting hurt. There’s insight to Moonlight that should pierce viewers to their core, even if Chiron’s life is very different from their own. This is not an “issue” film that’s mainly “about” race or sexuality; this is a humane movie, one that’s looking to prompt empathy and introspection most of all. On those terms alone, Moonlight is one of the year’s most gripping viewing experiences.

It’s been eight years since the release of Jenkins’s debut feature Medicine For Melancholy, itself a clever work about identity. That film followed a black couple wandering the streets of San Francisco after a one-night stand, pondering the gentrifying city and whether people of color could still find a place in it. Moonlight feels more personal for Jenkins, who was born and raised in Liberty City, Miami, the predominantly African American neighborhood in which the film is set. He’s stated that Chiron’s story is not his own, but the film has an incredible sense of place all the same. The movie begins with a casual conversation between two drug dealers on an abandoned block, then cuts to a young Chiron (Alex Hibbert), a boy taunted with the nickname “Little,” who’s hiding out from bullies in an empty, boarded-up apartment building.

Moonlight veers away from the gritty stereotypes its setting might suggest; in fact, this film deliberately rejects the visual markers viewers might anticipate in such a tale. Liberty City is bright and often colorful, even at its most dilapidated. When Chiron is rescued by Juan (Mahershala Ali), one of the drug dealers shown cruising around in a vintage Cadillac, the boy is taken to Juan’s suburban-ish home, and later to the beach, where Juan cradles him in the water to try and teach him how to swim. Juan quickly realizes that Chiron doesn’t need to be forced or coddled into opening up emotionally—he just needs space to be himself. At every juncture, Juan tries to dissuade the boy from accepting whatever lot he’s handed by his tormenters, or by his crack-addicted mother Paula (a frightening, and wonderful, Naomie Harris).

Ali’s incredible performance in Moonlight’s first third gives it its human core; Jenkins has no interest in upending, or affirming, the audience’s preconceived notions of how a drug dealer might behave. Juan is presented as an entire person because that’s exactly who he is—everyone in this movie is presented in the same three-dimensional fashion, even as they make decisions that break Chiron’s heart. More than anything, Juan tries to impress upon the boy that his outward appearance, and how the world sees him, isn’t everything. During his swimming lesson, Juan relays a memory of an old woman seeing him on the beach at night and saying, “In the moonlight, black boys look blue! You’re blue!”

In some of the film’s most important moments, Jenkins literally bathes his characters in that baleful, blue light, stripping them of whatever disguises they might unwittingly wear in the daytime. As a teenager (played by Ashton Sanders), Chiron is still awkward, still burdened by his mother, and perhaps only slightly more aware of his sexuality. When a nighttime flirtation with a friend turns sexual, Jenkins stages the action on a beach under the full moon, turning that intimate moment into something that feels at once exclusive to the couple and yet utterly universal.

There is tragedy at the heart of Moonlight, and the film is not an easy watch at times, partly because it delves so deeply into its protagonist’s haunted psyche. The movie’s final chapter, where viewers see the man who Chiron becomes (played by Trevante Rhodes), and his reunion with his childhood friend, feels like an utter surprise when it begins. But after 20 minutes with the characters, it’s clear why they ended up where they did. This cohesiveness is a remarkable achievement for a film that compresses a life story into three episodic segments, each running about 40 minutes. To say more would be to spoil a singular journey suffused with melancholy and hope, emotions that Jenkins communicates through the screen with uncommon grace. The result is a film that is one of the most essential of the year, and one whose depth rewards repeated viewings.