Top-notch character drama about the thawing of the human heart

Teodosia Dobriyanova on Kenneth Lonergan’s ‘Manchester by the Sea’ (2016)

The history of the movies proves that cinema has all sorts of ways of dealing with severe political times. While ‘dancing through the Depression’ with Hollywood musicals was a beautiful way to forget one’s economic worries in 1930’s America, an act of dancing on top of the ruins of the Old continent after WWII was barely considered. The traumatised European did not need to see perfect worlds in Technicolor happy-endings, but rather meet profound understanding.

Italian directors sensed this need and gave birth to “Neorealism” — a movement corresponding to the moods and worries of the post-war human. By using real locations and untrained actors, as well as narratives inspired by the real-life anxieties of its contemporary audience, Neorealism opted for empathy more than distraction. Its films were reflections of their the spectator’s lives, as well as of the lives of their neighbours, families, compatriots. Empathy was one of the things (together with memory) that humanity needed in order to avoid a repetition of the horrors the world had just walked out from. Ever since then, realism serves this very purpose – it lets us take a walk in other people’s shoes until we realise that this other is not so different from us. Precisely because of the empathy factor, it seems our political times require realism more than escapism. Our era is so far the peak of cosmopolitanism, yet borders tighten and walls are built. The diaspora is one of the crises of our generation and yet, society is careless towards this issue. People, haunted by wars and poverty, are forced to abandon their homes, abandon their roots and move to new places only to find that they’re strangers there as well. They cannot return to what used to be home, but the new place is not a home either. A stranger everywhere eventually becomes estranged from everything.

Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester By The Sea is realism in its purest form, so much that it reminds of Italian Neorealism in terms of A.O. Scott’s suggestion of the existence Neo-Neorealism as a result of the anxieties of the post-9/11 American. I will not go there, but I do insist that the film is released in a moment when we need to be conscious of the present and avoid repetition of the past by remembering and caring about those we consider as ‘Others’ as if they were ourselves. Manchester by the Sea delivers all of this through a family drama. The film is about Lee (Casey Affleck), a man who seems to be completely estranged from society and interacts no more than his survival needs require. We witness a working-class man in the midst of winter whose apathy spreads to every layer of human relationships one can imagine. His alienation from the rest of humanity is beautifully embedded in the cinematography, where the use of framing serves the purposes of literal separation of space between Lee and the others.

We follow Lee through his day and a certain ‘what’s this guy’s problem?’ question arises. But the film does not rush to satisfy our curiosity. All we are given at this point is a brief flashback scene of two men and a boy joking around on a boat in the sea. So, Lee was happy once. And then a phone call puts him out of his attempts to clean the piles of snow around, and makes him rush out to a destination an hour and a half away from his flat in Boston. The film continues to operate through mixing the reality of present with flashbacks of the past as a way to provide the spectator with the information they need to immerse in the story.

Affleck embodies Lee’s troubled persona brilliantly, allowing us to always empathise with him, however hard it can be at times. Similarly to the diasporic person of our reality, Lee has moved to a place which he can’t call home, but he can’t return ‘home’ either. His attachment to his only living relatives, however, brings him back to his titular coastal hometown of Manchester and he is faced with the familial obligation to stay there and look after Patrick (Ben O’Brien), the teenage son of Lee’s deceased brother. Gradually, we are presented with Lee’s battle with himself in the attempt to return home so Patrick’s life can continue undisturbed, and then the eventual and painful realisation that what will become of him if he makes this sacrifice, would make his existence unbearable.

So, in a film about severe winter, his relationship with Patrick is the only ice that seems to melt. Everything in Manchester by the Sea is frozen — the ground, a corpse, the human soul. Because of Patrick, Lee is trying to defrost all these, but as in life, a miraculously instant solution is not what results out of those attempts. There are no drastic character transformations, no happy endings, just modest sparks of realistic hope for something slightly better — Patrick’s existence in Lee’s life is the first time in a while Lee has been a person with a goal. And so the film ends at spring, when the ground has softened again. There’s still a freezing winter inside Lee, but he now has to make sure it’s spring in someone else’s life.

Manchester by the Sea is a beautiful exploration of the complexity of human nature. The film calls for empathy and understanding for a person we can hardly sympathise with at the beginning. For reasons inexplicable to me, a few people left the screening after the first half an hour. But those who stayed were given an answer to the “what’s this guy’s problem?” question, and got the chance to follow him through this painful collision of present and past that his life, until Lee begins to look for some sort of future with Patrick in it.

Teodosia Dobriyanova

By Teodosia Dobriyanova

Teodosia Dobriyanova is a writer, programmer, and documentary filmmaker based in London. She graduated in Film Studies (BA) from King’s College London (BA) and Ethnographic and Documentary Film (MA) from University College London. She has written for Dirty Movies, Filmotomy, and New East Cinema.