Ever since I was a kid, movies provided an escape for me. As I matured, movies became a way to see many parts of the world that I may never get the chance to see. One summer, I would go the library every week to pick up anywhere from 5-12 movies that I would then watch in that given week. Looking back I probably should have had a summer job at this point in my life, but I didn’t have a car to drive myself places. So instead, I would stay at home watching movies. Looking back, this certainly wasn’t the worst thing I could have been doing.
When I think back on that summer, I realize that I was exposed to a number of films that would change my mind about the world I live in. I have often argued that watching truly great movies can affect a person deeply, and can make them more knowledge and more in touch with themselves and the world around them. I truly believe that I became smarter by watching films. In the beginning, films exposed me to new ideas and new people. As I have matured, however, films have begun to do something a little bit different. As I’ve gotten older, , I’ve been able to personally connect with films and the characters that I see on screen. I often consider film to be the greatest art form of all. Maybe that’s because I believe that most of us can see aspects of ourselves in the movies that we watch.
Truly great films touch on themes and concepts that are not some creation of the Hollywood system, but are instead based heavily in the reality of everyday life.
When I saw Manchester by the Sea, I knew that it was a film that exemplified this idea. Those who know me know that I lost my brother over two years ago. This pain and grief has undoubtedly changed me as a person. The truth is that grief changes and affects a whole host of people in a number of different ways. Maybe that is why I connected with Manchester by the Sea so deeply. It is a film that dares to tackle the subject of grief and loss. As a filmgoer, I find that I gravitate towards films that I can personally connect with at a given point in time. I’ve often said that loss, and the grief that accompanies it, is not something that “gets easier.” It may get more bearable, but something that is bearable is not necessarily something that is also easy. Manchester by the Sea is a powerful example of this idea, and it poignantly examines grief and what it does to people.
Manchester by the Sea is the creation of writer/director Kenneth Lonergan, somebody who has made only three major motion pictures so far. Each one of his films touches on something real, and he is able to craft a story that is grounded in real life. In Manchester by the Sea, Casey Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a man who works as a handyman in Quincy, Massachusetts. After the death of his brother, Lee is brought back to his hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts. This same town is a place that he has tried to distance himself from. As the story progresses, the audience learns why Lee has moved and chosen to distance himself from his hometown. To reveal too much of the plot would be to take away from the film’s impact. What can be said is that Lee’s journey is one filled with grief and uncertainty. Throughout the film, Lee has flashbacks of his life up until the point at which we meet him. Some of the flashbacks are humorous, some loving, and others downright heartbreaking. All of these experiences, the audience learns, are what has made Lee the man he is today.
After returning to his home town of Manchester-by-the-Sea, Lee soon learns that he has been named guardian of his 16 year-old nephew, Patrick. Lee is unsure about how to approach being Patrick’s guardian, partly because the two don’t see each other often and partly because of the past memories that Lee harbors. Much of the movie concentrates on the relationship between Lee and Patrick, with special attention being given to their pasts and the moments that have shaped their individual lives. Their relationship isn’t an easy one to understand, but that is one of the movie’s greatest strengths. Unlike most movies that deal with family members learning to live and understand one another within a 2 hour screen time, Manchester by the Sea doesn’t force the relationship between Lee and Patrick. There are moments of humor between the two, but there are also moments of great frustration with one another. Lee and Patrick don’t always understand one another, and there often seems to be a disconnect between the two. As something of a spoiler, this disconnect is not completely resolved by the film’s end. That is human nature, though, and it is careful considerations like this that make Manchester by the Sea seem so genuine and real. We, as audience members, cannot expect two family members to completely heal all wounds and understand one another in the span of a film’s running time. This is especially true when ideas such as grief are being dealt with. Everybody processes grief in different ways, and not all people progress through the stages of grief at the same speed. Much of the disconnect between Lee and Patrick is organic because of the experiences that each has had leading up to the point when they are brought back together. Lee has lived a longer life, and has had grief shape him in a number of ways. Patrick, on the other hand, may not have had to deal with grief before. That is not until the loss of his father.
One complaint of the film that I have read about the most is that audiences feel as though Lee doesn’t change much from when we seem him in the beginning of the film to when we see him at the end. I find this to be mostly true, but again, that is what makes his character so authentic. One of my favorite quotes about grief comes from John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars: Grief does not change you…it reveals you. Lee has been through much in his life, and it is very possible that the grief he has experienced has revealed him fully as a human being. That’s not to say that additional moments of grief will no continue to affect Lee, but his character remains the same because of all that he has dealt with in his life. As movie goers, we cannot ask for characters to change drastically over the course of a film just because we want that to occur. Instead, we need to realize that powerful forces such as grief change a person forever.
Manchester by the Sea is filled with many ideas like this. While some audience members may be frustrated by the outcome of the film, there is no doubt that the film is one of breathtaking honestly. Kenneth Lonergan writes what is ultimately a film filled with humor and sorrow. By filling his film with strikingly real characters, he allows the audience to connect on a more personal level. The film dares us to remember how we felt when a love one passed away, and it makes us consider the grieving process that we all must grow through at some point in our lives. All of this is made possible not only by Lonergan’s beautiful writing, but also by the great performances of everyone involved. Affleck gives the performance of his career and is truly the heart and soul of the film. Affleck's performance is a quiet, heartbreaking one that we all should be able to connect with. Lucas Hedges, as Patrick, gives the breakthrough performance of the year. His acting makes us question how we would deal with grief if we were a 16-year-old trying to figure out our place in the world. In addition to these two great performances, Manchester by the Sea also features a number of great supporting performances. Of note, Michelle Williams and Kyle Chandler both give stunning performances that help to flesh out the film.
What cannot be ignored, of course, is the actual town of Manchester-by-the-Sea where the movie was filmed. Great movies are able to take their locations and make them another character altogether. This film does that. Despite having never being to the New England area, I seemed to fall in love with the region as it was shown on screen. This is due largely due to the talents of the cast and crew. By filling this film with people that seem all too real, the setting then becomes all too real for those watching the film. We somehow feel at home in Manchester-by-the-Sea, and we come to love its beauty despite the terrible events that brought us to the town in the first place.
Not enough can be said about Manchester by the Sea. It’s the type of movie that defies convention, especially in the era of superhero movies and unoriginal films that we currently live. The film is a reminder that movies, when executed properly, can truly affect our lives in the real world. To put a story on screen is an easy feat for filmmakers. To put a story on screen that seems real and honest...well, that's another thing all together.