How Manchester by the Sea Turns Social Realism Into Social Feelism

Rare is it to find a film which contains moments both understated and deeply emotional at one time, but Manchester by the Sea is exactly that movie. In reality, it’s that movie several times over. A relative unicorn in the seemingly endless spate of emotionally heightened prestige movies which litter our screens in winter time, Manchester by the Sea is social realism at its sparkling (if that were ever a word to describe the genre) best. This article will look at the movies ability to generate emotional scenes from its difficult material without ever veering into melodrama, from its stellar acting and masterful script to its naturalistic dialogue and careful editing. So if you’re a fan of Michael Bay smash-fests or Shakespearean soliloquys, I’m afraid this article isn’t for you, although it may be great material to send you to sleep, so why not have a gander further down? But of course, beware spoilers that follow.

A Lesson in Time

The structure in Manchester by the Sea is of course nothing new, flashing back to and from the present is almost as old as cinema itself, but the way Kenneth Lonergan uses it creates an unnerving mix of anticipation and anxiety, while never forgetting to keep the laughs ticking over. And that’s a surprise in itself. Knowing anything about the movie’s premise, you’d probably be surprised to hear that there were any laughs in the movie at all, but there are actually many. Most of these laughs find their place in the flashback part of the narrative where a jovial Casey Affleck juxtaposes the silent brooding janitor we encounter in the present. But the fact Manchester by the Sea has this many laughs anyway is in itself testament to the social realism it so accurately portrays, rarely in life is there such a prolonged period of misery or doom without someone attempting to mine it for laughs.

The double-act of Affleck and Hedges doing their best to convince you that I’m wrong and there is no laughs in the movie whatsoever.

As we spend more time with both past and future Affleck’s, we play a moving image version of spot the difference, eventually noticing the biggest anomaly is the distinct lack of his family in present day scenes. This fact is never really made to be secret but the reason for their absence is rarely hinted at for long periods in the movie, leaving the audience to gestate possible outcomes in their noggins. As most human minds probably lean into imagining a terrible fate for the characters on screen, there are likely few who predict exactly what the cause for their conspicuous absence is. But then, making guesses, successful or otherwise, is hardly what a movie like Manchester by the Sea is made for. So even if you were shocked by the time the big reveal comes around, it doesn’t leave you in a complete state of exasperation, but more contemplation. Whether you’re contemplating how you would deal with things in the same situation or how fine the line between life and death can be, this zippy structure within the movie not only explains the character of Lee Chandler so well it feels like you know him, but also keeps the story feeling entirely realistic and understandable. American painter Raphael Soyer once said “if art is to survive it must describe and express people, their lives and times”, so if you take any stock in his words whatsoever then Manchester by the Sea deserves to live long in our memories.

Great movies are of course a mixture of many fine ingredients and one of the best utilised facets in this movie is the lead performances of Affleck and teenager Lucas Hedges.

Embodying Grief

A movie about loss and new beginnings is an exceedingly tempting choice of source material for actors during award season, but despite ticking these very same boxes, the actors in Manchester by the Sea don’t really have a stand-out showy scene to choose for their nomination clip at this year’s Academy Awards. Yes, the lead pairing of Affleck and Hedges were nominated for a shiny bald man award like many before them have been for similar roles, but their performances are not exactly characteristic of the genre in ways we have come to expect. When there is a death onscreen, we usually expect a tour-de-force scene where the lead actor reacts to said demise and their anguish affects those watching in a number of ways. A popular tactic in these cases are over-wrought instances where thespians bellow out inaudible throat eruptions and a steady stream of tears. Think of Donald Sutherland in Don’t Look Now for a good example, think of Al Pacino in The Godfather Part 3 for a bad one.

Al Pacino screaming with pain and anguish in The Godfather Part 3

But so assured is Manchester by the Sea with its ability to construct a believable transition of grieving that it doesn’t feel the need to linger on the passing of Lee’s three children, n’or exploit their sad deaths any longer than it has to. The term actions speak louder than words is a sentiment that looms large over most of the movie, and there is no action bigger or more significant than the image of Lee Chandler’s house burning down as he watches on helplessly. And it’s another action that follows shortly after that scene which actually serves as Affleck’s big emotional reaction. But it’s almost a polar opposite to the aforementioned camera-hogging that many actors are guilty of in similar award-bait films.

After finding out that he is to be released scot-free following his fatal mistake, Lee grabs at a policeman’s gun and raises it to his head, only to find the safety still on. This short scene does two things simultaneously, it firstly represents the complete unpredictability of a mind consumed by grief and guilt, while also expertly illustrating the complete character change between past and future Lees. It also explains why Affleck’s character is so unaffected by his brother’s death in the movie’s initial scenes, he’s still grieving over his own loss. Yes, he’s not crying or discussing his problems with any of the people he surrounds himself with, because that would mean dealing with the horrible guilt he attempted to shoot from his life. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t still wrestling with it. So committed to his staunch resistance of moving on is Chandler that he actually escapes the one scene where he is expected, and almost beckoned, to explode and let his anguish out. When Michelle Williams, as Lee’s ex-wife, attempts to drag her former husband into facing their shared misery, writer-director Lonergan refuses to give Affleck the chance to stretch his theatrical muscles with a well-timed explosion of emotion. Instead, the Oscar-nominated actor shows a desperate grit which remains utterly relatable. Realistically, how often do everyday people burst out in despair on street corners in your local town? Regardless of whether or not they are being reminded of a truly horrendous time in their life, it’s essentially not a common reaction for people to act out. And despite this not exactly playing into the expected format of a movie gunning for Academy Award gold, it further reinforces its social-realism roots and thus makes it that little bit more empathetic for watching audiences.

Grief itself, as well as emotion on the whole, is unpredictable, and despite making fun of melodramatic reactions, a la Pacino, I’m sure in some instances they’re just as common as the understated one on display by Casey Affleck. But because this movie is actually about two coinciding timelines of grief, we’re treated to another subtle nuance on this emotion through young Lucas Hedges’ portrayal of Patrick.

Lucas Hedges’ portrayal of Patrick has also earned him an Oscar nomination

When discussing Lucas Hedges’ work, two quotes come to mind. The first from C.S Lewis’ collection of essays on bereavement, A Grief Observed, and the second from Roger Fry’s seminal work of art criticism Vision and Design. Considering Hedges’ character of Patrick had known about his father’s impending death for a considerable amount of time, it’s not entirely surprising that his initial reaction is almost as muted as his Uncle Lee’s. But as the running time progresses and Patrick is forced to attend more and more maudlin chores, we begin to take his strength and fortitude for granted. Which is what makes his sudden breaking down even more of a shock. In a previous scene where he finds out that his father will be preserved in the morgue for a couple of months until he can be buried, we understand Patrick’s uneasiness with the concept. But after hearing uncle Lee claim that “there’s nothing we can do about it”, we accept that conclusion and assume young Patrick does also. So when Hedges’ character goes rummaging through the freezer for a late-night snack and suffers what seems like a panic-attack, it’s kind of easy to understand. CS Lewis said that “no one ever told me that grief felt so like fear” and it’s simple to recognise both of these emotions clashing with one another in this short scene. The grief of losing his only present parent, the fear of not knowing who will care for him now, these emotions are enough to overtake the most together of people, so watching them strike a struggling teenager with no prior warning is a potent combination to witness on screen. True to the movie’s penchant for realism, this scene is surprisingly also one of the funniest in the movie and it showcases some great slapstick work from Lucas Hedges. Grievance is perhaps the most difficult emotion to contend with and it can often be triggered in unpredictable circumstances. So when you read Fry’s quote of “art appreciates emotion in and for itself”, you realise just how striking a piece of art Manchester by the Sea must be.

Not content with leaving the actors to pull the brunt of the work in portraying a realistic emotional tome, Kenneth Lonergan and his team behind the camera also work in several more interesting techniques to evoke emotion in the strict confines of reality.

Shots, Symbolism and Scenery

Kenneth Lonergan on set of Manchester by the Sea

There’s a few telling scenes in Manchester by the Sea where a lot of information is conveyed without an ounce of exposition. Various points in the movie have such success telegraphing emotion to its audience that it feels as if it’s been intravenously pumped into our systems. Considering the movies’ huge emotional happenings, you would perhaps forgive the film if it chose to exploit said sad situations, but Lonergan doesn’t make more out of the fatal accident then he ever has to. Films more obsessed with bludgeoning an emotional reaction from the audience would perhaps have double the screen-time committed to the fire which claimed Lee’s three children, but Manchester by the Sea is more concerned with charting a realistic journey through grief. At several points in the movie we see Lee arranging three photographs very carefully on his bedside table, but not once does the camera ever pan around to reveal the pictures. We of course know that they are pictures of Lee’s children, but the fact that we never have to actually be shown that fact speaks volumes. It’s not our loss to come to grips with. The obvious exploitative shot of their faces would cause an audience to bawl more, yes. But it’s the characters on screen who have to deal with that loss, so watching their reaction to the photos is far more telling for the story we’re watching unfold.

Seeing both Lee and Patrick react to the photos not only serves to explain Casey Affleck’s character but also the understanding of his character from others’ point of view. In addition to this, they’re also a metaphor for the deeply buried emotional baggage that Lee Chandler is clinging onto. Having spent most of the run-time pondering just how someone like Lee can live their life without so much as a semblance of joy, the audience is gradually introduced to the idea of him finally moving on when he takes on more paternal responsibilities for the likeable Patrick. The fact that he makes the decision to move his stuff in with his nephew gives the audience further hope that Patrick’s positive demeanour will perhaps rub off on his uncle. But when Lee returns to his dank bedsit to pack his belongings, what could be viewed as a positive step towards a new chapter, also has some worrying imagery. As Lee carefully positions the photos on the bedside table in his new home in Manchester, we slowly realise the significance of that act. Lee is so unable to shed the loss of his family that despite having to make some life changes and take on new responsibilities, he will always carry those photos, and grief, around with him. This physical manifestation of grief is a striking one for both its simplicity and symbolism. When Lee later says in the movie “I can’t beat it”, no matter how much we want him and Patrick to continue their burgeoning relationship, we have absolutely no trouble believing him.

Casey Affleck ponders the past and his future in Manchester by the Sea

Manchester by the Sea is a striking movie for many reasons; its cinematography, wonderful acting and incredible casting are merely a few of the main facets for this. But it’s the movies social realist approach that makes it such compulsive viewing. There are many movies, especially around award season, that attempt to cram in emotion by the bucket-load so audiences can generate authentic reactions. But by switching the emphasis of authenticity to the story itself, Manchester by the Sea comes off as one of the most natural movies in recent history, being both relatable and believable in equal doses. Yes, it’s an emotive movie which aims for you to experience real feelings, but it does so in a naturalistic way that many others cannot. And it is for that reason why it should tower over many movies made in the same vein, while also being right at the very top of your must-see list.

References

Films

Don’t Look Now. Dir. Nicholas Roeg. British Lion Films, 1973. DVD.

Manchester by the Sea. Dir. Kenneth Lonergan. Amazon Studios, 2016. Cinema.

The Godfather Part 3. Dir. Francis Ford Coppola. Paramount Pictures, 1990. DVD.

Books

Fry, R, Vision and Design. Wentworth Press, 1920. Print.

Lewis, CS, A Grief Observed. Faber and Faber, 1961. Print.

Raphael Soyer quoted in: Schwartz N. Barry, The New Humanism: Art in a Time of Change. Praeger, 1974. Print.