Manchester by the Sea, the new film written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, runs for two hours and 17 minutes. Despite this length, it only has one scene that depicts a moment of untainted joy. Lee Chandler, a Boston janitor played by Casey Affleck, teases his nephew Patrick on the deck of a small boat. Patrick, then in middle-school, teases Lee back, and escapes Lee’s grasp as he runs to his father Joe, the ship’s captain.
Unfortunately for the family, the scene appears only seconds into the movie, just after a graphic branding Manchester by the Sea a product of Amazon Studios. The characters laugh in their innocence, but the viewer can sense the impending doom: If a well-reviewed Oscar movie opens with working-class characters experiencing happiness, particularly if it’s shot from a slight distance, the camera still and afraid to get too close, you can bet that you’re watching a flashback, a calm before the storm, and a cloud of doom is about to befall them.
Lee Chandler gets it worse than most. When the film jumps to the present, he’s unclogging toilets in Quincy, the Massachusetts edge city where both John Adams and Dunkin’ Donuts were born. His work is interrupted by a call from the hospital: Joe has suffered some sort of heart failure, and Lee has to return to Manchester by the Sea, his hometown, to visit the hospital. He’s too late. Joe dies, and names Lee as Patrick’s guardian.
The situation is complicated by an incident in Lee’s past, revealed again through flashback, in which Affleck’s character lost three children of his own. The trauma is unique, but rather than making Lee unique, too, it renders him the most typical example of Hollywood’s new favorite archetype: Like so many other working-class New Englanders we see on screen, he’s a hockey-loving pain box who can only communicate his feelings through the occasional bar fight. He is not alone. Back at home, Lee is surrounded by a town of hockey-loving pain boxes who can’t communicate their feelings, either.
How has such a limited portrayal passed for depth, even honesty? Part of the credit ought to go to Lonergan. In his hands, these boxes are at least well crafted. Patrick, played by Lucas Hedges, has grown into an endearing smart-ass — a combination that teen actors often struggle with — able to temper his grief in part because he’s occupied with a reckless attempt to date two girls at the same time. In one of the film’s more tender moments, his hockey teammates awkwardly hug him after learning the news about his father. These guys don’t know how to handle the situation either, but unlike nearly any adult in the film, they deal with it by opening themselves up rather than closing themselves off.
These botched interactions are often funny, sometimes remarkably so, but Lonergan’s humor always takes place at a shivering distance. The audience may laugh, but never the characters.
Especially Lee. Affleck’s performance deserves its praise, but the character as written feels false, even manipulative. It’s not that trauma like what he experienced doesn’t exist; it’s that the movie creates the trauma from the character and not the other way around. It works backwards. Instead of creating a traumatic situation and exploring what kind of character emerges from it, Manchester starts with the trope of repressed, incorrigible working-class man and creates a backstory devastating enough to justify it.
Lonergan admits this. In interviews at Sundance, where Manchester premiered, he explained that John Krasinski and Matt Damon came up with the idea of a movie about a disconsolate handyman, then asked him to flesh out the details. His goal, he told Rolling Stone, was to create “the one film about somebody who doesn’t magically bounce back”: “I don’t like the fact that, nowadays, it feels like it’s not permissible to leave something unresolved.”
Critics have mostly parroted Lonergan’s self-assessment. Rolling Stone‘s Peter Travers, in a review so filled with ad-copy that the theater I went to turned the entire thing into a six-foot-tall poster, praised the film for showing “a sense of life as it’s lived and not manufactured by Hollywood.” (Travers may have learned about how life is lived during his summers in Cape Cod, farther down the Massachusetts coast, where he owns a vacation house.) For the Times‘ A.O. Scott, film offers “a kind of realism rarely found in recent American movies”; Amy Nicholson of MTV News praised it for not becoming “a hugfest, the kind of heart-warmer that ends with Lee and Patrick grooving to ‘We Are Family.'”
“That’s movie-normal,” Nicholson continues, “where happiness inevitably rewards two hours of tears.” She is right that the movie doesn’t end with a sing-along. Patrick and his hockey friends don’t teach Lee how to Milly Rock, or even Dougie. But in reviews like these, the movie critic establishment has supplemented the film with a sing-along of its own, reviewers in New York and L.A. coming together to do perform own versions what is essentially the same tune. This is the final happy ending, a ceremony of self-gratulation in which an entire industry praises its own perspicacity, its ability to appreciate work that isn’t “normal.” An actual hugfest is even scheduled for the Academy Awards, where Manchester by the Sea is predicted to win big.
This is perhaps a cynical reading of some fairly straight-forward reviews. But even at best, the hype around Lonergan’s film is the product of a false syllogism. Most movies aren’t like real life, we are told, and Manchester by the Sea is not like most movies. Many have taken for granted that this makes Manchester by the Sea more like real life. It doesn’t. No matter what the director says, bleaker and truer are not necessarily synonyms. Nor is it false to allow people who have experienced trauma to also experience moments of happiness, even levity, however occasional they may be. Working class people, even those who’ve suffered, don’t all lead lives of repression and isolation.
The thing that that Manchester and its admirers get most wrong, though, is their belief that in film, happiness or redemption necessarily imply closure. To disprove this, one needs to look no further than Moonlight, Barry Jenkins’ recent film about a young man, Chiron, who’s tormented by both his high-school classmates and his crack-addicted mother. Chiron finds a brief moment of respite when one of those classmates kisses him on the beach, but the next day the same kid bloodies his face in one of the most brutal and traumatic movie scenes of 2016. In both Moonlight and Manchester, the horror felt by the main characters is devastating, difficult even to comprehend. Unlike Manchester, though, Moonlight ends by jumping into the future. Chiron, now an adult, has closed himself off as much as Lee Chandler has, but his world opens slightly when he gets a call from the boy he once kissed on the beach. At the end of the movie, for the first time two decades, the men embrace.
In Lonergan’s schema, this finish would count as a resolution and therefore ring false. But Chiron’s problems aren’t “resolved” when he embraces his old friend — if anything they are redoubled. He is once again confused, and his future is once again uncertain. The world is harsh, but it’s not hopeless.
Manchester‘s implication that to be bleak is to be real is, in the end, as ridiculous as the sing-along happy ending it thankfully doesn’t have. And it’s this kind of thinking that leads to dull, self-congratulatory cinema that sends audiences away from art-houses and back to fantasy.
Critics don’t think much of people who prefer happy endings, or fantasy, but at least these perpetual targets understand that what they’re watching isn’t real. Manchester by the Sea, and its claque of supporters in the press, tell viewers a worse lie: That they are watching the truth.