Reel Talk

Manchester by the Sea and the Process of Grieving

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Grief is a weird thing. We almost all feel it in our lives, but it’s for some reason an incredibly taboo thing to talk about. We like to all think that what we’re feeling is unlike anything anyone else has ever felt. Which is kind of ridiculous. We all feel grief. It’s a universal feeling. But we like to keep it to ourselves, and not talk about it. But for whatever reason we do enjoy discussing grief in media. I guess it’s an easy way to talk about it without actually talking about what’s personally wrong with you, or the spurious notion that legitimate stories have to be bleak and depressing, but whatever it is once we’re around this time of year you know we’re going to get some movies about grief and sadness. Because that’s what gets you Oscars. But while I normally find that type of emotional manipulation cloying and a rather obvious ploy to win some awards, that’s not necessarily a sure thing. Everyone now and then you find a film that wallows in sadness, emotion, and grief, and actually works to become a beautiful story. A relatable story that gives an insight into how people grieve. And one of those movies has just been dropped into our laps, and it’s a hell of a film. It’s Manchester by the Sea, and everyone should see this film.

The movie is primarily about a man named Lee Chandler, a quiet and somber man living in Boston as a handyman for an apartment complex. He just seems to be drifting through life, trying not to get close to people, when he gets a terrible phone call. His brother Joe has just died, finally succumbing to a heart condition he’s been dealing with. So Lee has to drive out to his hometown of Manchester to start making arrangements and taking care of everything. Oh, and he also has the grim task to telling Lee’s son Patrick what’s happened. The pair then basically ignore their feelings, keeping busy with the grim work that comes along with a person dying. Patrick’s mom has long been out of the picture, and when Joe’s condition was diagnosed it was really just a matter of time before he passed, so things are actually in pretty good shape, but it still gives the two enough work to keep themselves occupied with. They also have to find some semblance of life, spending time together and trying to act as normal as possible, sitting around the house and doing everything they can to not crumple into balls.

Things are complicated though when they go to read Joe’s will and find something shocking. He wanted Lee to be Patrick’s guardian and finish raising him. Which really flips Lee out. And that certainly seems odd at first, because up until now I had assumed that Lee was just a slacker, trying to not get attached to people. But we learn that that’s not the case. And I know I usually dive right into spoilers, with no real worry that stories will be ruined, but I’m going to say right here that if you haven’ seen this film, you should probably stop reading this, because this reveal was devastating and fascinating. We learn that Lee has actually been married, and that he had three children. But on a night when he was drunk, he left a fire going when he went to get more beer, it got out of hand, and the house burned down, killing the three children. So, that’s a better explanation of why he’s so weird and removed from society. And from there we see Lee and Patrick do their best to figure out what to do with their lives. Lee is clearly terrified at the prospect of being responsible for another human being, and tries to do everything he can to get someone else to be Patrick’s guardian. The two bond, have fights, and have emotional moments where they talk about their issues, but in the end things still don’t work out. Lee leaves and goes back to Boston, and Patrick is put in the guardianship of a family friend, remaining in Manchester. But everyone seems to come to an understanding, because as much as he tries, Lee just can’t shake it, he can’t get over his pain.

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I had heard a lot of good things about this film going in. Almost every critic who discussed it couldn’t stop raving about every aspect of the film. It was wonderfully written and directed, the acting was phenomenal across the board, and it was just an achingly beautiful look at grief and the power that it holds on peoples lives. And with that high of expectations I was pretty worried that it wasn’t going to live up to them. Things were helped by the fact that the theater I went to check the movie out in was filled with loud and fussy old people. And yet, this movie delivered. And then some. The film was just all around expertly crafted. Everything about it worked for me and became one of the most natural and heartbreaking films I’ve seen in years. Every performance, no matter how small, was exactly right and Kenneth Lonergan directed it tremendously. And at it’s core, it had such a fundamental premise.

We will all lose people we care about. It’s a truth we all try to ignore for as long as we can. Our culture isn’t great with loss and grief, we tend to treat grief as something shameful that shouldn’t be talked about. There are still a shocking amount of people who think that therapy is something to be ashamed of, and that it’s a sign of weakness. We seem to think that the right way to handle loss is to just bottle it up and ignore that. But that’s ridiculous, and patently false. And this movie became a fascinating examination of that principle. Lee Chandler is an immensely tragic character, who seems to have had more hard luck that anyone should have to handle. And he takes that pain and misery and just seems to try to ignore it. He drink, he gets in bar-fights, he deflects conversations, and it’s crippling him. He’s so terrified at the prospect of being responsible for another person, horrified that he’ll mess things up again, that he can’t even bring himself to be there for his nephew. Which you would think would make him a character to hate. But by the end of the film I just pitied him. Because I completely understand what he’s going through. Grief is a terrible thing, and if you are equipped to deal with it it will drag you down and hold you hostage. And Lee clearly isn’t dealing with it. And it’s almost understandable. He’s had a horrible life, and seems to have been taught that it’s his job to keep that pain inside him and not deal with it. Not to move on. That’s obviously not the way that people should deal with grief, and we see Patrick actually succeed in getting to a better place, and exercising better methods in the film, but we know that Lee can’t do that, and that he’s fundamentally broken at this point. Which is a devastating conclusion to this story, but one that I completely understand and buy. It wasn’t wallowing in misery in order to illicit emotion so it could win awards, it was essentially a demonstration of what grief can do to a person when left unchecked, a sort of example on how not to deal with pain and suffering. And it accomplished that task beautifully.

Manchester by the Sea was written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan and released by Roadside Attractions and Amazon Studios, 2016.

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