Reel Dad: Manchester by the Sea, a fascinating study of grief

Kyle Chandler and Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea.
Kyle Chandler and Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea.

People grieve in different ways. Some of us may search for ways to understand what we cannot comprehend. We look for possible explanations of what may happen so we can absorb what may overwhelm and confuse. We pray for the strength to move forward as we cling to what we must leave behind. And we save the worst for the people we love simply because we have nowhere to turn.

Lee is a man defined by sadness. At the opening of Kenneth Lonergan’s film Manchester by the Sea, we see this man quietly fill his days taking care of small jobs for tenants of an apartment building and his evenings in the solitude of his private thoughts. Little do we know about the grief that fills his heart until his brother’s sudden death forces Lee to return to his hometown. And, when he learns he is to be the legal guardian to his late brother’s son, this brooding man realizes he must confront the tragic events that define his world.

As somber as the film may sound, Lonergan grounds his masterful drama in humanity, fills his characters with natural humor, and rewards his audience with a delicate expression of the hope that can emerge from despair. Through the careful use of flashbacks – that enhance rather than interrupt the narrative – Lonergan paints a rich picture of Lee’s life before tragedy intrudes. This man adores his wife and children, emotionally supports his brother and relishes being a popular figure in his small town. But single moments can forever change lives. And, before he can react, Lee faces a tragedy that few could survive. From such narrative seeds, a careless writer and director could have filled a sudsy drama with loud sequences and exaggerated characters. But Lonergan is too thoughtful a moviemaker to permit his drama to veer from truth. By letting the film breathe and the narrative naturally emerge – without over-emphasizing adversity – Lonergan lets us into a world filled with tears, denial and blame. He never dares to second guess how his characters will react. He simply lets them be.

Casey Affleck, in a performance that Oscar should remember, breaks the heart as a man who cries for understanding, hopes for miracles but lives with doubt. The actor fills his bravura performance with moments that will shake your spirit and touch your soul as he enlightens you to the sadness people experience when the cards are dealt the wrong way. Affleck gets able support from Kyle Chandler as a brother who understands, Lucas Hedges as the nephew who fears and Michelle Williams as the wife who troubles. But this is Affleck’s film. The actor moves out of the shadow cast by his brother Ben to emerge a striking actor of impressive depth.

As we approach the end-of-year release of high-profile films, Manchester by the Sea deserves to be noticed for the humanity it celebrates, the lessons it shares and the real life it portrays. This important film will restore your confidence in what moviemakers can achieve when they focus on the lives they portray instead of the explosions they stage. We can learn a lot from a film that is made with such loving care.

How movies embrace family tragedy: Ordinary People

by Mark Schumann
The Reel Dad

As we savor the real family feelings in Manchester by the Sea, another classic film reminds us how much we can learn at the movies about the challenges that families face.

After all, people with the cleanest houses may have the most mess inside.

We never really know what happens behind the closed doors that adorn any street in any neighborhood. No one could ever guess, or needs to understand, what happens in the privacy of families.

For some, however, maintaining a tidy house in appearance is as much a priority as the emotional cleanliness of its relationships. But it’s difficult to keep things in order when tragedy strikes. And, for a family that doesn’t deal well with mess, the sadness of the untimely death of a teenage son, and the guilt of his younger brother, can be too much for the family to handle.

Mary Tyler Moore, Donald Sutherland and Timothy Hutton starred in Ordinary People.
Mary Tyler Moore, Donald Sutherland and Timothy Hutton starred in Ordinary People.

Ordinary People takes us to the heart of a traditional, upper-middle-class family of the 1970s. The father is a successful attorney; the mother is a happy homemaker; their house and children clean and well appointed. But when tragedy strikes – and the older son dies in a boating accident – the foundations of the family are forever threatened as each tries to deal with the tragedy in his or her own way. For the surviving son, however, the tragedy sets him on a course of self destruction. Will the family ties be strong enough to help him survive and find a new balance in his life?

Based on the book by Judith Guest, what makes the film resonate is the careful approach Robert Redford brings to his first effort as a film director. The subtlety of the actor’s work on screen effortlessly translates to his handling of the story’s emotional layers. Rather than let the drama exaggerate into the extreme, he carefully keeps a lid on the emotional intensity. In this way, while the trappings that surround the characters may be extraordinary, their emotional challenges seem all that ordinary indeed. Through his eyes, Redford helps us see that such journeys can be filled with ordinary circumstances no matter the houses in which they reside.

At the time of its release, few films had explored family issues with such sensitivity and authenticity. Today, of course, we have seen many similar dramas on the big and small screens; but, in 1980, this film broke new ground. No matter how different families today may dress, people still pretend for others. And, even with its dated 1970s lifestyle images, Ordinary People resonates with its honest exploration of how tragedy can disrupt family relationships. The film dares to look beyond the sadness of the moment to reveal the core issues this family must address in order to heal. And it inspires us to reach out to our own family members, before such a tragedy occurs, to make certain we are relating to each other in authentic ways.

No family is perfect, no matter how well-kept their house may be. And no parent always makes the right choices in dealing with children. As we learn in Ordinary People, unless we willingly confront the issues that complicate our families, we will never truly connect.

See you at the movies.