Oscar Best Picture Nominees Like ‘Dune’ and ‘Belfast’ Show Characters at a Crossroads

Dune Coda Belfast
Courtesy of Warner Bros. / Apple TV+ / Focus Features

The push-pull relationship between an individual developing his or her sense of self and the external forces trying to steer them — be they parental, professional, political or cultural — creates a tension that is common, and formative, to many people’s lives. Despite the wildly different stories that they tell, many of this year’s best picture nominees vividly illustrate this universal conflict, examining the challenge of retaining or asserting one’s identity while the world around them attempts to impose pressure or exert its influence.

As perhaps the most fantastical of the nominees, “Dune” sends young Paul Atreides ( Timothée Chalamet) on a journey that owes no small debt to Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, but director and co-writer Denis Villenueve weaves a complex tapestry between the lineage into which the character was born, the overlapping but sometimes dueling ambitions of his mother and father, the feudal aristocracy of the film’s futuristic setting, and the almost primal sense of home and harmony that Paul feels once he arrives on the desert planet of Arrakis.

“It’s something very mysterious for me that some human beings have a very strong instinct to find elements, people or an environment that will help them to grow up,” Villenueve tells Variety. “Paul struggles with a religious heritage, and also a genetic heritage, and he gets free of them by embracing a new way of life that will allow him to confirm his identity and get stronger and become a real adult from being in contact with another culture.”

The filmmaker says he wanted the narrative of “Dune” to mirror Paul’s self-discovery. “There’s something about that introspective journey of the character — that the deeper Paul Atreides goes, the deeper he goes into himself.”

While the biographical film “King Richard” follows the coming of age of tennis legends Venus and Serena Williams, director Reinaldo Marcus Green and his screenwriter Zach Baylin perhaps unexpectedly centered that real-life story around their father, Richard Williams (Will Smith), who conceived a 78-page plan — before either of them were born — to set them on the path that would make them two of the greatest athletes in the history of sports. Baylin says exploring Richard’s journey helped more fully illuminate the ones that Venus and Serena would embark upon.

“It never felt dramatic to me to show Venus and Serena as we know them now. I wanted to look at the moments in their life where their dreams were either going to succeed or fail, and this period of time became the cauldron of that,” Baylin says. “And then when I centered on that, it really became clear to me that Richard was going to drive the narrative because he had sort of incepted the idea and then brought everyone else in the family on board to it.”

As unconventional an approach as the film’s might seem, Baylin says he, Green and their collaborators wanted not just to honor Venus and Serena’s accomplishments, but the people that they became, and determined that the best way to do that was by depicting how Richard helped facilitate both, sometimes against his own needs and instincts.

“I always looked at it as a story of a father who wants to achieve things for his family, but is held back by his own desperate need to prove some kind of worth in the world,” says Baylin. “And that ultimately what he realizes he has to do to achieve that is actually step out of the spotlight and allow his children to take control of their own of their own lives.”

As in “King Richard,” both the main character in “CODA” and her deaf family have some growing up to do during the course of the film, but writer-director Siân Heder says that when she was adapting its story from the 2014 French comedy “La Familie Bélier,” she particularly wanted to examine the idea that young Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones) was wrestling with some challenges for which she was more responsible than she initially realizes.

“I didn’t want to make a movie where Ruby’s family is standing in the way of her dreams,” Heder says. “I don’t think they are. But I did want to make a film about the way in which it’s hard to individuate from your family when who you are in the world feels so wrapped up in who they are.”

As the child of deaf adults, Ruby works as a translator for her parents and her brother’s business and social endeavors, helping her family navigate a community that simply doesn’t know how to interact with them without realizing that she’s also preventing opportunities — on both sides — to overcome the distance generated by their disability. “So much of it is Ruby trying to prevent the awkwardness that happens when her family interacts with the outside world, when somehow that awkwardness would actually be the way through to find real connection,” Heder says. “When I was writing that character and in directing Emilia, it was important to me that she feels this kind of crushing responsibility and there’s a resentment that comes along with that responsibility, and yet there is an incredible reluctance to give that thing up.

“This was really a story where the whole drama of the story was the pull of your dreams versus the pull of your family,” Heder continues. “And I loved looking at this character and how much of that was real and actually happening and how much of that was in the emotional life of the character and something that she was actually creating.”

While Ruby’s pursuit of her dreams eventually helps the Rossi family reconcile with the inhabitants of their seaside hometown, in Kenneth Branagh’s “Belfast,” the parents of 9-year-old Buddy (Jude Hill) try to protect him at all costs from political climate teeming with conflict.

“Buddy is trapped between a protective family who can no longer keep him safe, and a world that forces him into the rough politics of the street, i.e., violence,” Branagh says. “That’s where the drama lay — how does a child navigate emotionally through the unknown, when life experience is accelerating dangerously and exponentially?”

The semi-autobiographical tale gave Branagh an opportunity to revisit a pivotal time in his childhood with the perspective of hindsight and the polish of a storyteller, seeding in the real history of Northern Ireland in the late 1960s while recreating the small and the stolen moments in which he first started learning about the complexities of the adult world. “Buddy starts listening at half open doorways, listening at barricades, around parents rushing to make big life-changing decisions, and around bad men who are co-opting the vulnerable,” he says. “In my own lived experience of this, I had to become a spy in my own life, to have any idea of what was going on around me, and in order to survive.”
While “Belfast” arrives at a place of possibility and hope that is similar to many of the other best picture nominees, Branagh leavens the sweet with the bitter in a way that not only reflects his own past, but tells a more sophisticated and ultimately more powerful story because of it.

“Buddy’s parents and mine provided the example of believing that the good could be found somewhere in even the direst of situations,” Branagh says. That joy had to be sought always and especially when the forces of darkness were at work.

“The Irish learn to do crisis pretty early on. It was never easy, but Belfast people had a gallows humor and a grim reliance which looked to find and extend every moment of calm in the storm.”
The other titles nominated for best picture are: “The Power of the Dog,” “Drive My Car,” “Don’t Look Up,” “Licorice Pizza,” “Nightmare Alley” and “West Side Story.”