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Family Reigns in ‘Moonlight,’ ‘Manchester,’ and Other Major Screenplay Contenders

Variety logo Variety 2/7/2017 Carita Rizzo
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This year’s contenders for both adapted and original screenplays have one theme at their core: family. Whether it’s the family we are born into, or the one we choose, the films tackle love and loss, how we are affected by gender roles, and our struggle with identity.

In “Moonlight,” a young man’s evolution is influenced by that of his drug-addicted mother and an outside support system. Barry Jenkins wasn’t looking to dig deep within himself when he adapted Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play, but the son of a drug addict soon found himself in familiar territory. “I thought, I’ll do a Tarell family. That way, I won’t be dealing so much with mine,” he laughs. “Of course, once you start digging, you end up back at the place you started. It does create interesting work because you’re posing questions about the world, and you’re looking for those answers inside.”

Exploring the inner workings of a family is particularly fruitful when emotions that arise from conflict are open to interpretation. In August Wilson’s “Fences,” a father’s lack of encouragement takes on more than one meaning. “Lots of people have been writing about Troy being jealous of Cory for the opportunity that he had, and I have to disagree with that completely,” says Wilson’s widow, Constanza Romero. “August wrote about a certain generation of man who didn’t want their children to go through the kind of discrimination that they went through. So everything that Troy does, though it seems completely misguided, he does out of love and duty.”

“Hell or High Water,” where two brothers embark on a bank-robbing spree in order to ensure the future of their children, was born out of Taylor Sheridan’s own sense of responsibility as a new father. “I was the breadwinner at that point, but not winning a lot of bread,” he says. “I was terrified of how my failures would limit his ability to become whatever he is to become. So, I was exploring my own frustrations.”

Responsibility was also a theme Kenneth Lonergan drew upon when writing “Manchester by the Sea.” “I, for a long time, doubted whether I had the right to tell this story because I haven’t experienced anything this bad by half in my life,” says Lonergan. “In the end, I decided that people want to see stories about the human experience. It’s not a movie that says, ‘Life is sad. Go home now.’ It’s a movie about somebody who’s trying very hard to do the right thing by his brother and by his nephew, even though it’s almost impossible for him to even get out of bed in the morning.”

In “Arrival,” Eric Heisserer explores loss in a deliberate exchange for love and the lessons to be learned. “Death is the inevitable conclusion to all life and there will be times where it will come sooner than we want it to,” says Heisserer, who adapted “Arrival” from Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life.” “We need to focus on the moments in between and live in the present. For a movie about time, the most important message is to just focus on where you are now.”

Family takes on a broader term in “Hidden Figures,” in which the three main characters form a strong, sister-like bond. “Back in the ’60s, the African-American communities across the nation were very tight knit, because they had to be,” says Theodore Melfi.

Adds co-writer Allison Schroeder: “The film was always about these women being a family at NASA, supporting each other and lifting each other up.”

Similarly, in Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land,” the couple at the center become each other’s ports in the storm. “You form a little bunker to help you cope with the world,” says Chazelle, adding that a relationship shouldn’t be discounted because of its outcome. “I think there’s an overemphasis on a couple staying together, as though a love story is only meaningful if the couple stays together forever. I wanted to tell a love story that was meaningful even if it’s a finite story.”

These ties that bind are by no means a new theme in storytelling, but Luke Davies, who adapted “Lion,” a modern-day fable about a son seeking out his biological mother, believes it is one that resonates strongly because of the current political climate. “For the past 18 months there has been an incredibly vitriolic aggression on the public stage, and a lot of anxiety floating around,” says Davies. “So when all of these films get released they act as a soothing, healing power on people’s psyches. We yearn for these experiences of our hearts being broken open.”

And in the end, family is the most fertile ground for great stories. “It’s where all the battles happen, it’s where you figure yourself out. You carry those relationships with you through your adult life,” says Mike Mills, nominated for “20th Century Women.” “Every film is about family, because those are the mountains in everyone’s psyche. It’s how we understand the world.”

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