THE big shock at the Academy Awards on February 26th, aside from a kerfuffle over announcing the wrong winner for best picture, was that the right film actually won in the end. “Moonlight” is like no other film that has won best picture before: in terms of the story the film tells, how little was spent to tell it ($1.6m) and just how few people saw it. Far more will see it now.

Based on a semi-autobiographical play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, “Moonlight” is the tale of a black gay youth’s struggles growing up and coming of age as the son of a crack-addicted mother in the tough Miami neighbourhood of Liberty City. Barry Jenkins, another son of Liberty City, adapted the screenplay and directed it, splitting the story of the youth, Chiron, into three parts—as a boy, a teenager and then a man. The boy, neglected and verbally abused by his mother, finds a father figure in Juan, a drug dealer who gives him a second home and lessons in life. As a teenager he grows more distant from his mother and timidly explores his sexuality. As a man he has grown a hardened shell to protect himself from his childhood, but it begins to crack.

It is a hypnotic film, punctuated by small moving moments and meaningful silences, like the tension before a first kiss, or a question hanging without an answer. James Laxton, the cinematographer, washes the images in lush colours and contrasts which, accompanied by a subtle, occasionally soaring score by Nicholas Britell, give the film a dreamlike quality.

“Moonlight” received a rapturous reception from critics and eight Oscar nominations, including for both Mr Laxton and Mr Britell, as well as for Naomie Harris as the boy’s mother. Mr Jenkins and Mr McCraney won for best adapted screenplay; Mahershala Ali won for best supporting actor in the role of Juan.

The academy’s voters have shown a preference for smaller-budget films in recent years, but never for one as small as this. Seven of the previous eight winners of best picture cost between $15m and $20m; “Moonlight” was made for a tenth of that. The film’s worldwide box-office total, $26m, means that perhaps 3m people have seen it, far fewer than have seen previous winners (or “La La Land”, this year’s incorrectly-announced winner). But after the Oscars it became the best-selling movie on iTunes in America, and is already opening again in more cinemas. The story of “Moonlight” is just starting.

Correction (March 3rd): A previous version of this piece said that 300,000 people had seen “Moonlight”. It should have read 3m. This has been corrected. Sorry.