Moonlight (2016) Alex Hibbert and Mahershala Ali

Moonlight (2016)
Alex Hibbert and Mahershala Ali

Assessing the independent alternative to the Oscars

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

Photo: (l-r) Alex R. Hibbert as Little and Mahershala Ali as Juan in ‘Moonlight’

I have always been a sucker for the freewheeling and free-spirited appeal of the Film Independent Spirits Awards. What’s not to love? Instead of the grand presentation full of glitz and glamor tinged in gold that is the Academy Awards (Sunday, Feb. 26), the Spirits will host a full-blown Santa Monica beach party under tents the afternoon before (Saturday, Feb. 25—the broadcast kicks off at 5 p.m. ET live on IFC) where the attending stars mix and mingle with sand squishing between their toes and the sunshine blazing as the brightest light in the sky.

The celebration zeroes in on films made on a more reasonable budget, generally without major studio participation. The talent, sometimes lured from A-list projects, works for scale or just a bit more, for the pure love of the performative game—like Michael Jordan back in the early days of his NBA career when he could be found playing pick-up basketball on playgrounds during the summer. That’s how you truly elevate players on the grind, street balling teams hustling to build a reputation, and the game itself, supporting and inspiring that spirit—more than the shoes, the tongue-wagging, and the rings—is what made Jordan a legend.

And that defines these Independent Spirit Awards.

We all know, or are certainly anticipating, the inevitable Academy Awards sweep for “La La Land,” but the real film fans, the discerning moviegoers out there, will tune in the afternoon before to see “Moonlight” and “Manchester By the Sea” go toe-to-toe for the Best Feature prize, with “Jackie,” “American Honey,” and “Chronic” lurking in the wings. I caught four of the five nominated films at the Toronto International Film Festival (“Chronic” didn’t play at TIFF), and I would argue for any of those four ahead of “La La Land” as better representations of film narratives that left an impression on me that will last years from now.

The Spirits are all about impressions, although those intuitive insights are not limited to audiences. This premier event seeks to support creative mavericks, like the late John Cassavetes, the indie filmmaking patron saint whose name blesses one of the Spirit’s signature awards honoring the Best First Feature Under $500,000.

Over 20 years ago, the Film Independent Board codified the overall nomination and selection criteria, focusing on original, provocative subject matter; uniqueness of vision; economy of means; and percentage of independent financing (a $20 million cap is eventually set). Via the Someone to Watch Award (narrative) and the Truer Than Fiction (documentary) Award, the Spirits seized upon the opportunity to spotlight and directly impact the careers of emerging filmmakers by granting the winners $20,000 prizes for future works.

Across the board, what results is a field of nominees that far more dramatically represents a diversity of thought, production, and individuals involved in the creative process. Take, for example, the final five for this year’s John Cassavetes Award. Two selections prominently feature African-American tales from what Ralph Ellison would have deemed “the lower frequencies” (“Free in Deed,” about a storefront preacher praying for a modern-day miracle in his community, and “Hunter Gatherer,” spotlighting an optimistic ex-con reconnecting in his old neighborhood); while “Lovesong,” from writer-director So Yong Kim, captures the evolving intimacy between two women during a road trip. Cross-cultural exchanges dominate “Nakom,” the story of Ghanaian medical student living abroad who is forced to come home after the death of his father to take over the family farm, and “Spa Night” details the burgeoning sexual awakening of a shy young man struggling to determine his place and identity in Los Angeles’ Koreatown.

There’s a real shame here that regional audiences will never have the opportunity to experience these narratives in local art houses; but with the expanding options afforded by streaming services and affiliated cable outlets, many of these titles are available. The Spirit Awards broadcast used to be seen merely as an alternative to the Oscars, the decidedly lesser blow in the one-two knockout punch signaling the end of the annual awards season.

But maybe it’s finally time to recognize the Spirit Awards as the shared heart and soul connecting filmmakers and eager, appreciative audiences. Through this annual celebration, more so than the Academy Awards, we actively nurture the creative spirit of cinema. What a feeling!

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Reach DCP Film Critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com and visit his blog for additional film reviews at TerrenceTodd.com. You can also follow him on Twitter at @ttsternenzi.

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