I, amongst many others, will go with the idea that film is another avenue of art that is supposed to tell us more about our reality, but there’s an obvious exaggeration to the artform. Movie-goers have always looked to the art of film as an escape from reality–to see something extraordinary to help forget the struggles of daily life. Filmmakers, typically, have been restricted to subtle hints at a theme that people can relate to rather than shoving the ugly truth into their eyes. Not only is it hard to market to someone who has only two days off a week and wants to catch a flick at the theaters, but ultimately, you will end up with a boring movie. While I won’t argue the case that Manchester by the Sea is an exceptionally exciting film, I will stand by the fact that this is cinema’s best effort at realism.
Lee Chandler is a man who lives by himself, working as a multi-purpose handyman in Massachusetts until he receives news of his brother going into cardiac arrest in Lee’s old hometown of Manchester. When Lee arrives, he finds that his brother has died and the will indicates that he is to be the guardian of his nephew. Lee, while at first in disbelief, decides that moving away from Manchester with his nephew is the only way he could take that responsibility. We find that the reasoning behind his aversion of Manchester is his dark past surrounding a night that he killed his two kids in an accidental house fire.
Not all people can relate to something as destructive as tearing apart your family like Lee does, but the real focus of the film surrounds Lee dealing with his grief–something that all people go through no matter the severity of their tragedy. In traditional Hollywood, a film would show constant flashbacks, or characters breaking down into emotional wrecks, but writer/director Kenneth Lonergan’s brilliance comes from his ability to show a character’s real suffering through their actions. Living our daily routine like we do in real life while trying to forget every tiny fractured thought of unhappiness and pain pouring into your head is the most raw picture of human suffering.
Lee Chandler does what real people do, and we get a window into the parts of his life that cinema typically would never show us. Shutting car doors, shoveling snow, forgetting where you parked on a cold day, drinking a beer and watching hockey are daily living activities that Lee has to try to do to overshadow the pain of his brother dying, taking care of his nephew, seeing his ex-wife who now has another child, and ultimately the most painful of all: remembering the fire that ruined his life in Manchester.
Manchester by the Sea might not have a truly cinematic climax, but there is a definite peak where Lee finally reveals his grief. Aside from bar fights and breaking a window, Lee is somewhat composed throughout the film. It isn’t until after he encounters his ex-wife in street one day that he snaps. The moment isn’t cinematic. We see Lee hunched over in the dining room sobbing. When his Nephew comes in to check on him, Lee has one simple statement, “I can’t beat it.” This is the most important quote of realism in this film. It reinforces the idea that these characters are trying their hardest to beat their pain. Whatever means they can use to move past their problems is good enough, but in real life, it’s not good enough. People don’t overcome depression. People don’t forget their father passing, leaving them with no one to care for them. People don’t forget killing their two kids in a house fire leaving them alone and miserable. People don’t simply forget; they just try their best.