Let’s Break Down Some Recent Films


Hey everyone, Happy Cinco de Mayo!

Sorry for being away the month of April, but sometimes life happens.  We’ve spent a lot of time talking about movies, dissecting movies and analyzing film structure to understand what makes a story work so that we can apply that to our own writing.

After a month away, I thought we might get back on track by looking at some of the most critically acclaimed films from last year and analyze them to hone our skills at breaking down film structure to understand plot and story.

These analyses are going to be kind of long; but if we’re going to understand how the plot and story of each film works, we need to dig deep.

There’s no better place to start than at the top, so let’s begin with Oscar-winning “Best Film” of 2017, Moonlight.


Academy Award winning Best Film of 2017, Barry Jenkins’ sophomore film Moonlight is a rare film about a gay black man.  However, the film is not exclusively about being gay and black in a poor neighborhood.  On a deeper level, the film is about the universal struggle to find human connection and realize our true selves.

LOGLINE: A chronicle of a young black man’s life from childhood to adulthood as he grows up in a rough Miami neighborhood and struggles with his own sexual identity.



Little/Chiron/Blue, a taciturn, gay black male living a hard scrabble life on the streets of Liberty City.

What is the main character’s INITIAL WANT?

Little/Chiron/Blue wants to be himself and find love in his world.

What is the INCITING INCIDENT that sets the story in motion?

Little is found in a vacant apartment by Juan, a drug dealer who takes him to lunch and begins to ask him questions about himself.

After the Inciting Incident, what is the main character’s CONFLICTED WANT?

Little likes the attention of Juan and his girlfriend Teresa, but he also is leery of strangers and doesn’t know if he should stay or go home.

Who are the FRIENDS/FOES with whom the main character debates his/her choice?

– Friends:
      – Juan is a friend, and in many ways Chiron’s mentor figure throughout the story, even when he’s no longer around.
– Teresa is a friend whom Little (Chiron) goes to for comfort and safety.
– Kevin is his friend and his mirror figure throughout act one, as he experiences some of the same bullying as Little.

– Foes:
     – The other kids who torment Little.
– Paula, Chiron’s struggling single mother.

What SKILLS, TALENTS and DEFICIENCIES does the main character have?

– Little is a survivor, he knows how to take care of himself.

– At this point in the film, Little has very few skills as no one has ever taken any interest in him.

– Little’s “deficiency” is that he doesn’t know who he is or like himself very much.

What does is the CLEAR WANT that the main character has…?

Little wants to be loved and accepted for who he is.

What ACTION CHOICE does the main character make to obtain his/her want?

Little choose to seek out love where he can find it.  He finds solace at Juan and Teresa’s house where it is safe and they look after him.  He also hangs out with his friend Kevin.  But in order to love himself, he needs to understand himself and the world around him, which forces him to accept ugly truths about his mother and Juan.

The New World (Act II):

Who are the ALLIES the main character encounters?

– Mentor Figure: Juan, even after he passes.
– Mirror Figure: His friend Kevin remains his loyal companion through high school.– Minor Figure: Teresa’s continues to be a place of comfort and safety for him in high school.

Who are the ENEMIES the main character encounters?

– Terrell and his crew who torment and harass Chiron.
– Principal Williams who doesn’t understand him.
– The kids at school who intimidate Chiron and don’t get him.

Who is the ANTAGONIST who prevents the main character from achieving his/her goal?

Continuing the idea that Chiron’s want through the second act is still his search for love, the antagonist is best perceived as being society that doesn’t understand or hold a place for a gay black man.  Still, that idea needs to be represented by a character.  In this case, that would be Paula who, in her drug-addled state, is incapable of loving him for who he is.

Who or what is the WANTED OBJECT in this story?

 As I’ve said before, the “Wanted Object” can be a person, thing or idea.  In this film, Chiron’s self-definition is the wanted object.  Everyone around Chiron has an opinion about who Chiron should be.  Chiron’s entire struggle is to figure that out for himself.

What is the MIDPOINT SHIFT that allow the main character to take effective action?

 The midpoint shift in the film is a moment, almost always half-way through the film, where the main character has an epiphany about him/herself that enables them to take action toward realizing his/her Clear Want.  In this film, that scene is on the beach when Chiron realizes that he’s not alone in the world and that the possibility of love exists if he can risk pursuing it.

The Brave World (Act III):

 Based on the main character’s epiphany what ACTION COURSE does s/he take?

 With an inkling of hope that he might find a place in the world, Chiron begins to stand up for himself.

 What action does the antagonist take to create the RISING CONFLICT?

 As Chiron tries to stand up for himself, Terrell and his crew continue their harassment.  Chiron can no longer abide it, but he doesn’t have the internal fortitude to stand up to it yet.


 With the increased bullying and the shame of his mother’s condition, Chiron’s self-loathing an alienation increases.  It reaches its peak when Kevin turns on Chiron and beats up Chiron to save himself from Terrell.

 What is the PERSONAL LESSON the main character learns from this experience?

In most films, this is a moment when the main character express some understanding of him/herself.  In this film, the moment happens without words.  Chiron realizes that he must defend himself, which he does by cracking a chair over Terrell’s head.

18.What is the LOWEST MOMENT in the story?

 Out of jail and now an adult, Black realizes that his mother is never going to truly love him despite her words.

The Reordered World (Act IV):

 How does the main character react in his/her MOMENT OF WEAKNESS?

 Resigned to a life without love, Black returns to his life as a low-rent drug dealer.

 What MOMENT OF RESILIENCE that enables the main character to continue?

 Out of the blue, Black (Chiron) gets a phone call from his friend Kevin whom he hasn’t spoken to since high school.

 What is the ACTION COURSE that the main character takes?

Black decides to visit Kevin to understand why he called.


Usually in a movie, the subplots are resolved in Act Four after the main character has formulated his/her plan of action.  In this film, because it is about the loneliness of Little/Chiron/Black’s journey, the subplots have all been resolved earlier as Little/Chiron has shed all people that he knew to reinvent himself as Black.

 What is the CLIMAX of the story?

Black chooses to go against everything he has learned in the world and risk making himself vulnerable by dropping his guard and allowing himself to be vulnerable with Kevin.

What is the CHANGE that has occurred in the world of the story?

 By the end of the film, Black is able to accept who he is, and he has found a place in the world where someone accepts him for that.

How is this RESOLUTION ARTICULATED at the end?

 This change is articulated by the shot of Black resting his head on Kevin’s shoulder, juxtaposed against the final shot of Little in the moonlight on the beach looking back at us to remind us that we all carry our childhood wounds with us through life.

Lessons to Learn

Now that structure has been laid out, go back and watch Moonlight.  See if you can spot the turns and beats of the plot and story as they unfold.

What lessons can you take from Moonlight and apply to your script?

Next Week, we’ll look at a very different movie, the “Almost Best Film,” La La Land.

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