Storytelling in movies – Moonlight and Lion

What makes a story good enough to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar? I’m going to find out.

Over the course of the next week, I’m going to be seeing all nine of this year’s best picture nominees. Our local movie chain, Harkins Theatres, is holding a Best Picture Film Series. $45 bought me all nine tickets, plus a souvenir cup and a popcorn voucher. (Such a deal, right?) I’ve already seen four of the movies, but I think seeing them all together in only a week is going to give me a different perspective.

SPOILER ALERT – In order to discuss what makes these stories work, I’m going to ruin them for anyone who hasn’t seen them. Go see these movies and then come back.  

The Movies


The first thing I noticed when I read about this movie online is the difference between the synopses on Metacritic and IMDB. Here’s Metacritic:

Moonlight is the tender, heartbreaking story of a young man’s struggle to find himself, told across three defining chapters in his life as he experiences the ecstasy, pain, and beauty of falling in love, while grappling with his own sexuality.

And here’s IMDB:

A timeless story of human self-discovery and connection, Moonlight chronicles the life of a young black man from childhood to adulthood as he struggles to find his place in the world while growing up in a rough neighborhood of Miami.

Which description would bring you to the theatre to see this movie? To be honest, I probably wouldn’t go out of my way to see it if I only read the Metacritic description. But that IMDB blurb? Heck, yeah, I’d go. I don’t know which description will feel more accurate once I’ve seen the movie, but the difference highlights the importance of the tagline and synopsis you develop to sell an agent on your book, as well as the blurb that ends up on Amazon and your back cover.

The movie is based on a play. Plays have a different rhythm than movies do – it’s almost like the difference between a poem and a novel. I’m curious to see how the 3-chapter structure works here.

What I’ll be thinking about while I watch, and afterwards:

* How does the beginning of the movie set us up – orienting us to time and place, getting us to engage with the main character?

* What’s the plot arc? I wonder if it will be three distinct arcs that fall within an overall arc. Where do the beats fall? What’s the pace?

* What emotions does the movie invoke, and how does it do it?

* How does the movie tell us how to feel about each of the characters? What are the signs and signals, and when do they appear?

* How do music and cinematography contribute to the experience? How could those be replicated in words on paper?

After seeing the movie – SPOILERS FOLLOW

The IMDB synopsis is more accurate. There’s an important romance in the movie, and it has a big impact on the main character’s life, but it doesn’t dominate the story.

The opening scene knocks us off balance with a dizzying, spinning effect where we’re circling around and around, watching a drug dealer trying to get rid of a user who doesn’t have money for what he needs, while the dealer’s boss drives up in his growling Chevy. At the same time as we’re off balance, we’re oriented to the world of the movie – there’s a two-story yellow apartment building and palm trees to tell us we’re in Florida, and we’re obviously not in the part where people live in mansions overlooking the ocean. The scene cuts to a kid in school clothes running through tall grass, desperate to escape the bullies who are chasing him. This sets us up right away to be on his side. He responds to kindness with stoic silence, and he doesn’t go home that night, making us wonder what’s going on with him and his family. We gradually get to see him loosen up, only to be knocked back down.

Beats in the plot come regularly. The arc flows through the whole film, and it hits some of the classic hero’s journey notes, although some is off-screen. The mentor dies between chapter 1 and chapter 2; and the huge adversity – jail time – that transforms the main character happens between chapter 2 and chapter 3. It’s an effective choice, because it keeps our attention focused on the main character, who he is, and his internal journey, not on external events. That dizzying, disorienting camera, like an animal circling its prey, comes back at the end of chapter 2, when we can see the betrayal coming, and we know what it will lead to.

This is an intensely emotional movie. It feels real, every step of the way, even in the artistically manipulated scenes where the lighting is strange and we stop hearing the dialog when the boy tries to shut his own ears. It takes us from hopelessness to cautious hope and romantic excitement and back to despair. The final chapter is so understated but so moving – we’re pulling so much for the main character to be the person we want him to be, and when he takes a chance and drives down to see the man who loved him then betrayed him, only to learn he has a wife and child now, we’re heartbroken with him, and when he confesses that there has never been anyone else for him…Cue the tissues.

The cinematography is brilliant. I read that one deliberate choice was not to use the dark colors and harsh light that makes life-on-these-mean-streets seem so brutal in a lot of movies – here, the colors are soft, the ocean where the boy learns to swim is pale greenish blue, the yelling mother is lit with pink light. It contributes to the real feeling here. These are real people, not caricatures.

 So what can I learn from this as a writer? Focus, I think. The filmmakers knew what was important about the story, and that’s what they told. They trusted the audience to make connections. And the importance of drawing on experiences you know intimately. Both the playwright and the screenwriter grew up in Miami with crack-addicted single mothers. And possibilities: the power of art to open people’s minds. We see the unfairness of sending Chiron to prison, and the human impact of that action, and by implication maybe we’re more receptive to people who tell us too many black men are locked up; we see the pain of a little kid who’s different, and maybe we’re more careful about passing judgment on people.

Oh – and be careful how your story is described on the back cover, on Amazon, and on social media. We might have missed this wonderful movie if it weren’t for this festival, because the Metacritic synopsis makes it sound like a steamy romance.


Interestingly, the synopses of this movie are identical on Metacritic and IMDB:

A five-year-old Indian boy gets lost on the streets of Calcutta, thousands of kilometers from home. He survives many challenges before being adopted by a couple in Australia; 25 years later, he sets out to find his lost family.

This one is based on a book, which is based on the author’s own experience. The screenwriter is a poet, a novelist, and a film and book critic. I wonder if I’ll be able to see the influence of that poetic sensibility in the way the movie story is told.

During this movie, I’ll be thinking about some of those same questions as for Moonlight, but I’m also curious to find out:

* Does the movie follow a Hero’s Journey type of storyline? I already know the author is an Australian businessman, so the major beats – leaving the familiar world, learning to navigate the unfamiliar world of adventure, and the homecoming – are all there. I’ll be looking for the threshold, the mentor, the helper, and the death and rebirth.

After seeing the movie – SPOILERS FOLLOW

This was a more Hollywood-feeling movie than Moonlight. Nicole Kidman is in it, and its geography is huge, spanning large swaths of India and a beautiful beach house in Tasmania.

Lion doesn’t waste any time before introducing us to the main character, a 5-year-old hopping on a train with his older brother to steal coal that they sell for milk. The boy is lively and brave, worships his brother and loves his mother. The movie conveys this with subtitled dialogue – they’re speaking in Hindi – and action. We’re immediately engaged with this kid and his impoverished, rural family. The mother is loving and hardworking, the big brother is fun and protective, and what gets the kid into trouble is his refusal to accept any limitations.

The pacing was unexpected. We spend a lot of time in India, getting to know the rural family, and then after Saroo accidentally ends up 1,200 miles away in Calcutta, seeing him struggle to survive on the streets and in a horrifying orphanage. The Tasmania portion is probably less than half the movie, and includes lots of flashbacks that return us to India to see still more scenes of Saroo’s early life. Even with the flashbacks, and with the terrific actor Dev Patel as the grown-up Saroo, the Tasmania portion felt slow. There’s a bit of getting to know the character again, which we need to do because twenty years have gone by, and then his memory is triggered by a Proustian moment – at a party with Indian food, he encounters a treat he begged his brother to buy him – and he spends the next five years searching for his birth family. The search boils down to using Google Earth to hunt for the railroad station he remembers, somewhere in a 1,200-mile radius of Calcutta. While he’s searching, he’s hiding his search from his adoptive parents, assuming they’d be hurt if they knew, and his obsession and his refusal to let anyone help drives his girlfriend away.

Hero’s Journey elements? There’s the ordinary life, then being thrust into another world, the abyss at the orphanage, the struggle to get home, and finally the homecoming. You could consider the big brother as the mentor early on, and then the hero has to go on without his mentor. The death and rebirth come in the middle, if you think of the orphanage as the death and the Tasmanian adoption as rebirth.

I noticed the music more in this movie than I did in Moonlight. It effectively set the mood, helped tell the story, and oriented us to the Indian settings. There’s a scene in the orphanage where the children sing a song to mask the sounds of what’s happening to one of them – it’s a strange, haunting song, and it dispels whatever familiarity we’re starting to feel with India. Here’s a link to a video of it with subtitles.

This is another emotional movie. In the early, India scenes, the emotions come out of the action – being trapped on a speeding train, lost in a sea of humanity, running from adults who want to do who knows what (we all saw Slumdog Millionaire, so we know their evil intentions), trying to explain where you came from when all you know is a five-year-old’s pronunciation of your home town and that your mother’s name is Mum. The Tasmania scenes’ emotions come from the actors’ performances. The most emotional scenes are at the very end, when Saroo has finally found his home and sees his mother for the first time in 25 years. The real photos shown with the credits further tug at your heart.

And then – just before the credits roll, there’s a card that says 80,000 children a year disappear in India, and the producers are dedicated to helping organizations that are trying to solve that problem. Unbelievable, right? Here’s an article about child trafficking in India.

So what does this movie teach me about writing? No matter how foreign the character is, we can relate to him through qualities we recognize, like spunk, humor, and love of family. Motivation is critical; some of Saroo’s behavior as an adult seems inexplicable – this is a true story, and people do act in inexplicable ways in real life, so  I think in a book you’d need to acknowledge how weird this is, and maybe propose some explanation. Subplots can keep things moving when the main plot is slow, as with the movie’s subplots about the disturbed brother, the girlfriend, and the adoptive parents when the main plot is basically a guy clicking on a laptop.

Next up for us: La La Land which we’ll be seeing tonight. I expect the audience will be bigger for this one – it’s Saturday night, and the movie’s had way more publicity than the first two did. I’m hoping for a little break from the emotional rollercoaster.

Have you seen Moonlight and Lion? What did you think? Please add your comments below.


Written by Shan
I spent 25 years conducting performance audits of state agencies, looking for ways they could be more effective and efficient. I helped write countless government reports. I worked with the smartest, nicest people in state government, and was honored to be a part of that group. Now, though, I’m writing fiction (yay! adjectives! dialogue!), learning banjo, traveling, hanging out with my fabulous granddaughters, and – big surprise – I’m still not decluttering that back room that was on hold for the past 25 years.