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'Moonlight' continues to exceed expectations, leading the way at the Spirit Awards

'Moonlight' continues to exceed expectations, leading the way at the Spirit Awards
Trevante Rhodes and Andre Holland in "Moonlight," which earned six Spirit Awards nominations. (A24)

"Moonlight," Barry Jenkins' intimate drama depicting three periods in the life of a young gay black man, earned six nominations Tuesday for the Film Independent Spirit Awards — feature, director, screenplay, cinematography, editing and the Robert Altman Award, which honors the director, casting director Yesi Ramirez and the acting ensemble.

The last three movies to win the Spirits' best film trophy — "Spotlight," "Birdman" and "12 Years a Slave" — have gone on to win the Oscar.

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That kind of outsized expectation might be a little much for an uncompromising film about a character, played by three different actors, learning to accept his sexual identity. But then, "Moonlight," an indie hit and critics favorite, has done nothing but exceed expectations since premiering in September at the Telluride and Toronto film festivals.

"If you had sat me down six hours before that Telluride premiere and said, 'Eleven weeks from now, this is going to happen,' I would have said, 'No, you're wrong,'" Jenkins told The Times. "I never imagined this many people would care about this film."

"American Honey," Andrea Arnold's exuberant movie celebrating youth, which, like "Moonlight," was released by A24, also received six nominations. (A24 earned a leading 19 Spirit nominations with "Swiss Army Man," "20th Century Women" and "The Witch" also earning recognition.) "Honey" hasn't connected commercially with audiences and it's probably not on the radar of most Oscar voters — unless their grandchildren have begged them to watch it.

Also nominated for best feature: "Manchester by the Sea," "Jackie" and the disturbing drama "Chronic," which has grossed $9,033 since its September release.

The recognition for "Chronic" and its lead actor, Tim Roth, along with nice showings for Kelly Reichardt's meditative, mysterious "Certain Women" and the provocative religious drama "Free in Deed," address the annual complaints that the Spirits aren't indie-minded enough. ("Free in Deed" has played only the festival circuit.)

Meanwhile, the Spirits' love for "Moonlight," "Manchester" and "Jackie" will give the movies a nice boost as Motion Picture Academy and guild members begin to sift through towering stacks of movie screeners this Thanksgiving weekend.

But it's not a certainty that these other groups will follow the lead of the critics, programmers, actors and filmmakers who vote for the Spirits nominations. Last year's two big Spirits nominees — Netflix's child-soldier war drama "Beasts of No Nation" and the lesbian romance "Carol" — had mixed success moving forward.

"Beasts" was shut out at the Oscars. "Carol" received six nominations, but was left off the academy's best picture slate.

To be eligible for the Spirit Awards, films must be American productions made with an "economy of means," which Film Independent defines as budgets up to $20 million.

The budget guideline eliminated Damien Chazelle's musical "La La Land," which cost around $30 million, as well as the upcoming dramas "Nocturnal Animals," "Fences" and "When a Monster Calls." The Weinstein Co.'s tear-jerker "Lion" didn't qualify either because it's an Australian production.

Three years ago, all four Spirit Award acting winners went on to take the equivalent Oscar. With Denzel Washington's adaptation of August Wilson's "Fences" — a powerful acting showcase — ineligible, a similar sweeping correlation is unlikely.

Also worth noting: The absence of any individual acting nominations doesn't hurt "Moonlight," as the same thing happened with "Spotlight" last year. The Spirits simply chose to honor the movie's extraordinary ensemble as a whole.

The 2017 Film Independent Spirit Awards will be held on Feb. 25 in Santa Monica. IFC will broadcast the show live.

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Twitter: @glennwhipp

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