Still from Manchester by the Sea (2016). Image from source.
By: Kelly FitzGerald
This weekend I watched Manchester by the Sea at a/perture. I was expecting an uplifting story about a boy and his uncle bonding during hard times (based on the trailer)—but that is hardly the lasting impression I think director Kenneth Lonergan intended.
Situated in the fictitious New-England coastal town of Manchester-by-the-Sea, the plot concerns itself with a dark and bleak time in Lee Chandler’s life (played by Casey Affleck). Very much a “slice of life” style film, Manchester by the Sea employs realistic filmmaking techniques to offer a snapshot of what is essentially the worst part of Lee’s life. There is no happy ending or strongly defined character arcs. It is more so the fairytale of the common man—the harsh reality of what life is and can be.
Looking at this film after discussing the story of Cinderella last week prompted me to reflect on the film in comparison. The two narratives offer completely different outlooks on life, the latter being particularly hopeful and unrealistic. Why are we so fundamentally obsessed with fairytale endings? As revealed in Manchester by the Sea, it’s because they don’t exist.
For Lee, Randi, and Patrick, life relentlessly throws curveballs that further complicate already messy situations. There is never a beaming light that offers closure, never an opportunity to reverse time, nor a key to the locked door marked ‘happy ever after.’ The filmmaking style avoids drawing attention to artifice to portray how life unedited is hardly what it is often made out to be. The temporal aspect plays an important role in this, taking “its sweet time” to focus on every raw second of what feels like an unabridged timeframe (apart from flashbacks) rather than telling the story in the same amount of time but covering it in less detail to also include what happened a couple years later—which would probably make for a happier ending (see Roger Ebert review here). While the narrative itself may not be the most uplifting, Lonergan’s intentions seem to have been rooted in the humble idea that life is incremental. It’s the baby steps that count.
I think La La Land offers this same sort of lesson, with the distinction of being portrayed in a highly stylized way. Though it dazzles on many fronts—from set designs to singing, dancing, acting and editing—the ending is hardly as glamorous. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone) embody the dichotomy of Hollywood—from the mesmerizing connections afforded through music and passion to the failures and heart-wrenching realities of what it takes (and costs) to get to the top. Not to mention when you get there—it doesn’t always lead to the fairy-tale ending you expected.
Still from La La Land (2016). Image from source.
Two of the top films of the year, Manchester by the Sea and La La Land both embody a harsh spirit of reality, portrayed in two very different ways. While this lesson is more obvious and expected in Manchester by the Sea given the realistic aesthetic style, the latter also reveals that by artifice and style—the very building blocks of Hollywood itself—there will always be certain truths—such as the non-existent happy ending—that can’t be hidden.