One of the best reviewed films of the year after coming out of Toronto is Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, based on Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. The film follows the life of Chiron, played by three different actors at points in his life 10 years apart, who is trying to find his identity as he grows into manhood.
Jenkins was on hand this morning at Deadline’s the Contenders event at the DGA Theatre for a discussion of the film moderated by Pete Hammond, along with cast members Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris and the three actors who play Chiron — Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders, and Alex Hibbert.
Moonlight presents a melancholic portrait of life in the unromantic suburbs as the main character navigates the crack-riddled streets of his neighborhood and struggles with a complex love for his best friend. It begins with Chiron as a young boy, played by newcomer Hibbert in a performance that has been widely praised. “It was so amazing to get to work with someone so pure and honest,” Ali said about his young co-star.
Hibbert had equal measure of praise for Ali, who he said served as a supportive mentor to him on set and, as it turns out, taught him how to swim. “I was gonna die,” Hibbert joked to big laughs from the crowd. “This was a very safe set,” protested Jenkins, to even more laughs. Hibbert also was proud to be in the film, saying he was honored “not just to be in it but to see it and for everyone to come and support it,” to which the whole audience audibly “awww”-ed in response.
Ali also praised Harris and said he was thrilled to have gotten to work with someone so seasoned and powerful.” For her part, Harris was clearly moved by the films story, calling the experience of being in it “such a journey of self discovery.” She added that it was fulfilling to examine a character like the one she plays, and that she was glad to understand through the role “what it means to be an addict, to be abusive to yourself as well as your child,” but in a way, she said, that allowed her — and the audience — to “let go of that judgment.”
“Addiction meant something completely different than what I thought,” she added.
Moonlight has been handled deftly by distribution executives, initially rolling out in four screens on October 21 and grabbing a whopping $414K to rank as the best opening per-screen average of the year at the specialty box office. No small feat for a relativity new director and a film with no name stars. This is only the second film for Jenkins after his 2008 Medicine for Melancholy.
Like Moonlight, director Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women also hits close to home, in his case because he based the story on his own experiences — much like his 2010 film Beginners.
Annette Bening plays the lead in 20th Century Women as a character inspired by Mills’ mother and already is being buzzed about for an Oscar nomination in this A24 film about three women who raise an adolescent boy (Lucas Jade Zumann) during a pivotal summer in 1979. Elle Fanning and Greta Gerwig also star.
Mills approached the film very personally, using his mother’s belongings as props. “That’s my mom’s jewelry [Bening] is wearing. She’s laying on my mom’s bedspread,” he said.
However, Mills insists he didn’t direct Bening to do an impression of his mother, instead following her lead in finding the character. “What she does that still trips me out,” he says, “is she can pack so many contradictory microexpressions into one non-dialogue moment.” Calling it “just effortless,” The writer-director says Bening’s particular “magic trick” is that it it feels natural, that it “isn’t gonna look like [she] worked on this.”
A24 acquired U.S. distribution rights to 20th Century Women in June. Before this picture, Mills probably was best known for Beginners. 20th Century Women was produced and financed by Annapurna Pictures’ Megan Ellison, Archer Gray’s Anne Carey, and Youree Henley.
The film starts its Oscar-qualifying run on December 25 and will go wide January 20.