TELLURIDE, Colo. — It was a unique sight. Following a screening of “Moonlight,” as director Barry Jenkins and the cast of his new film exited the Galaxy Theater here Saturday afternoon, the festival-goers who had just seen it and had hopped back in line for the next one burst into applause.
It was love for the movie, naturally, which Variety critic Peter Debruge called a “socially conscious work of art as essential as it is insightful.” But it was also the warm embrace of one of the town’s own: Jenkins has history here, helping Telluride put together its shorts program every year and serving as master of ceremonies in a few of the venues as well.
His homecoming gift to the festival delivers, a sophomore feature made with such assured grace that the hype of theater director Peter Sellars’ over-the-top intro endorsement couldn’t derail it.
In the wake of another #OscarsSoWhite controversy, the film also holds an intriguing place in the awards season. But it’s interesting, because as much as “Moonlight” is a vital part and extension of the Black Lives Matter movement, its universal themes of coming to terms with identity and where you fit in the world ripple even further.
That will be key in attracting viewers who might think there is nothing of themselves to be found in a film about a South Florida black youth exploring his homosexuality, whose mother (Naomie Harris) is strung-out on drugs, who’s crack-dealing surrogate father (Mahershala Ali) represents the very culture that put her there. But even if it does for some reason end up being an uphill climb to get people engaged with the material, well, New York-based indie distributor A24 has been there before.
“Will Academy voters see Lenny Abrahamson’s ‘Room?’ Will the subject matter put them off?” Even with a well-received world premiere last year in Telluride and an unexpected audience award weeks later in Toronto, that dark and emotionally charged film felt for many like an unlikely prospect outside of recognition for star Brie Larson. In the end, not only did “Room” net a best picture nomination, but Abrahamson was tapped by the directors branch of the Academy as well.
It was good insight into a branch that is considerably smaller than its guild counterpart. From such a distilled sampling you can get more adventurous choices, like Benh Zeitlin (“Beasts of the Southern Wild”), like Bennett Miller (“Foxcatcher”), like, indeed, Lenny Abrahamson.
That’s why it seems to me Jenkins could be a story this year. The visual storytelling he conjures and the wrenching performances he draws from his cast are sure to appeal to his colleagues, who will also no doubt respect the restraint and quietude with which he tells his story. Patience and audience trust on this level is in short supply. Jenkins has made the kind of film directors often dream of pulling off.
The cast is so uniformly excellent it could threaten to win the Screen Actors Guild’s ensemble prize, and yet not see any particular performer singled out. The film’s lead character is portrayed by three different actors, each of them — Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes — exceptional, but none of them necessarily standing apart from the rest. In fact it’s perhaps another testament to Jenkins’ talent and vision that the inner life and identity of the character is present in all three performances.
Ali’s is such a welcome presence that you really feel his absence after the first act, but it might not be enough screen time to break through. Only Harris is consistent, and her journey, the way it builds to an emotional climax, ought to be enough to consider her a strong contender in the supporting actress race.
What will be interesting is to see whether the passion will be there for the film to cross into best picture territory. It’s one of the hits of Telluride this year, certainly. It could fade as a possibility as new pieces of the puzzle are added over the next few months, but like “Room,” it could weather that doubt and show up strong in the end. It’s not a film that will soon leave anyone who sees it, and that’s what it takes to stick around this time of year.