Coming-of-age stories usually come packaged in a nice bow, with hardships dealt and lessons learned within two hours of fairly painless storytelling. Those are the forgettable ones. But unforgettable coming-of-age stories, the ones that really stick with you, function on a more visceral, more resonant level, tapping into emotions and ideas that transcend the screen. Moonlight, from writer-director Barry Jenkins, is unforgettable.

Right off the bat, Moonlight will be inevitably (and somewhat unfairly) be compared to Richard Linklater’s Oscar-winning Boyhood, the year-by-year chronicle of a young man’s life. But that’s where the comparisons end. Here, each one of Moonlight‘s three acts focuses on a particular age of Chiron, a young African-American boy growing up in downtrodden South Florida, raised by a drug addict mother (a fierce Naomie Harris), and embarking on a journey of self-discovery and sexual identity.

Nicknamed “Little,” 9-year-old Chiron (a fantastic Alex Hibbert) falls under the wing of a drug dealer named Juan (Mahershala Ali) whose wife (singer-songwriter Janelle Monae) becomes the maternal figure he needs. It’s a formative stage in the boy’s life, a childhood delicately observed by Jenkins and co-writer Tarell McCraney. At age 17, a scrawny Chiron (now played by the magnetic Ashton Sanders), deals with bullies at school and finds consolation in a best friend who later betrays him. Finally, we meet adult Chiron, now nicknamed Black, a musclebound figure who is still the sensitive little boy inside despite following in the footsteps of the dealer who impacted his childhood. The role is played with a quiet intensity by Trevante Rhodes, and he carries the final third of film as Black revisits the past and attempts to reconnect with the one person who means so much to him. It’s a heart-wrenching chapter simmering with a tension that is both sexual and dreadful at times.

Will this man who has faced so much heartache and pain break free from a repressive lifestyle to find the sliver of happiness he deserves? A film like Moonlight refuses to spoon-feed audiences a clear-cut resolution and will leave some questions unanswered. And therein lies the haunting brilliance of Barry Jenkins’s intimate portrayal of a life forever in progress.