Hey, SAG Awards voters: ‘Moonlight’ has the best ensemble of the year

Writer/director Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight” opens in limited release this Friday (Oct. 21), after wowing critics and audiences at the Telluride, Toronto and New York film festivals. This contemplative coming-of-age story, based on Tarell Alvin McCraney‘s acclaimed play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” tells the story of Chiron in three chapters spread out over 15 years. The cast of “Moonlight” includes three actors playing Chiron — Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes — and another trio as his friend Kevin — Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome and Andre Holland — as well as Naomie Harris as his drug addicted mother and Mahershala Ali and Janelle Monae as a couple who care for him.

A24, which did well last year with “Room,” produced the film from the ground up and should set their sights on one of the industry’s highest accolades, Best Ensemble at the Screen Actors Guild Awards. On paper, “Moonlight” might not strike many as the most likely contender for this award. After all, it features a relatively unknown cast in a small-budget production that is told in a way that isolates each of the performances from a majority of the rest of the cast. And most SAG-nominated films have large, closely connected casts anchored by the leading performances of big name stars, such as last year’s winner “Spotlight.” However, history is made to be defied and rules are meant to be broken so let’s look at the three key reasons why the cast of “Moonlight” deserves this particular award and how it isn’t as far out of the box for SAG as we might assume.

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Small cast of young, relative newcomers
Just like “Straight Outta Compton” (2015 nominee) and “Slumdog Millionaire” (2008 winner)

The biggest names among the “Moonlight” cast are relatively small compared to this year’s other contenders such as “La La Land,” “Manchester by the Sea” and “Fences.”  Ali is the most recognizable name to SAG members for his work on television, notably for his Emmy-nominated performance as Remy on “House of Cards.” Harris will be a familiar name to some for her last decade of work in film, most recently her supporting turns as Moneypenny in the last two Bond films. Beyond them, Monae is a singer making her film debut while younger actors Sanders, Hibbert, Jerome and Piner will be entirely new to everyone.

However, the unfamiliarity of names in a film that makes a big splash at the fall festivals didn’t stop SAG voters from giving this award to the cast of “Slumdog Millionaire” in 2008, long before its stars Dev Patel and Freida Pinto had established their careers. And just last year, “Straight Outta Compton” was nominated despite being anchored by only one familiar name, Paul Giamatti in a supporting role.

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Isolated performances that form a cohesive vision
Just like “The Big Short” (2015 nominee) and “Crash” (2005 winner)

One of the challenges that the “Moonlight” cast had to overcome was the film’s dissociated structure. Told in three parts, each at a different stage of the main character’s life (pre-teen, teenager and adult), “Moonlight” isolates each actor from most of the others yet still finds a way to maintain a cohesive vision. In the case of two characters — Chiron and Kevin —  Jenkins builds a synchronization of movement, personality and tone across portrayals of them by three different actors each. Harris and Monae are the only cast members to appear in multiple acts. The former is a scene-stealer in all three as a mother in vastly different stages of her battle with addiction while the latter is a respite of comfort in the first two acts. Each of these women forms a believable connection with their male counterparts despite it being a different actor in each part.

The balancing act required to pull off such isolated performances is one of the film’s biggest achievements and one SAG has noticed before. Last year the group nominated “The Big Short” despite that story being told through multiple narratives that never crossed paths with one another and in 2005 the guild gave the award to “Crash,” a film bound together by its overall themes where most of the characters’ relationships are based on the cause and effect of their actions rather than scene to scene interaction with one another.

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Small, indie film with a tender tone
Just like “Boyhood” (2014 nominee) and “Little Miss Sunshine” (2006 winner)

Lastly, it’s important to remember that it isn’t always big studio, big idea films that make the cut with SAG. Two years ago, “Boyhood” was nominated despite its subtle storytelling, examining closely the coming of age of a boy in a similar fashion to “Moonlight.” And in 2006, “Little Miss Sunshine” won the award against competition from flashier choices like “Dreamgirls” and “The Departed.” Like these two examples that precede it, “Moonlight” is grounded by its tenderness. The actors breathe life into the story in subtle ways, never screaming “This is acting!” but preferring to connect to one another as we do in real life, with compassion, thoughtfulness and in the silences between our conversations.

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