Stephen Miller

AI researcher, startup cofounder, podcaster, person, etc.

Review: Manchester by the Sea

“The worst is all the lovely weather. I’m stunned it’s not raining. The coffee isn’t even bitter, because what’s the difference?”

Quoting LCD Soundsystem is quite possibly the hipsterest way to start a review. But watching Manchester By The Sea (4/5 stars), I couldn’t shake James Murphy’s words. In film, a world quite literally exists to amplify and solidify tragedy: soundtracks swell, memories replay in soft focus, cameras linger on empty chairs and undusted bedrooms. A primed audience watches and feels the weight of the protagonist’s grief. But the nefarious thing about real-world tragedy is that it’s completely invisible. There’s no camera to project towards, no color palette to mute, no profound metaphor hiding at the frame’s periphery. No change occurs that you didn’t instigate; no one knows a feeling you didn’t willingly thrust upon them. The world is out there, and your grief is in here, and no one else wants it. You inherited this sadness; you’re its sole and rightful guardian. How will you tend to it?

Some of us choose to romanticize grief, burn it in mental celluloid: fumble a soundtrack on the keyboard, pen a script of memories like bad poetry, throw a fist-full of stage dust and shout “action” to no one. Lee, however, is not like me. Maybe he’s never been that way, or maybe he was before time and pain eroded it. We do know he’s lived through more hell than anyone ought to, and life never gave him room for a proper mise en scène. So when the nurse tells him there’s nothing they could do for his brother, he leapfrogs straight to Acceptance. He’ll need to take a few days off work, of course. The kid will need someone to pick him up from school, probably. The funeral, he’ll have to have one of those, is there like a number or a guy or something? Focus on the details. Impose upon no one. Reduce conversation to absolute necessity, look past every gaze at a 45 degree angle. Roll forward quietly, calmly, a stone. And it /is/ technically forward motion, but that grief — who’s tending to it?

Patrick, his nephew, tries to split the difference. He’s had years to prepare for this, to fortify his walls. And he’s decided the best defense is a good offense. Adopt a dark sense of humor. Distract yourself with hockey and band practice and boats. Surround yourself with friends (plenty) and girlfriends (two). Have them over to reminisce the night after It Happens, and laugh loudly like healthy people supposedly do. Move on, fall in love, keep with the routine, don’t let anybody see you break. But as he “shares with” these friends, as he’s “falling in love”, he isn’t being any more open than Lee. His gaze is 5, maybe 10 degrees to the left: a shot aimed to look sincere but still throw the game. He isn’t giving them his grief, he’s performing it near them. So where is it, actually?

In a shallower film, the answer would be “inside” and both would explode. Thankfully, this isn’t the sort that speaks in explosions. But as we watch them navigate this bizarre thing — the banality of grief, whether orphaned or owned, the phone calls and morbid plans and utter tedium — we see glimpses of their fault lines and moments of their escape. Those moments are eye-opening and lovely and sad, and their quiet aftermaths, set in a gorgeous New England seaside, are even better.

It’s in the dynamic between Lee and Patrick, though, where the film really thrives. They bear witness to each other’s failures. Lee is an adult who wears inwardness on his sleeve: his outbursts might be stronger, but at least he knows the limits of his walls. Patrick is just a kid: he doesn’t even know what he doesn’t know yet. But he knows his uncle’s pain. He’s been studying that for a lifetime. And that unspoken apprenticeship; the quiet, fumbling understanding that it’s okay to not be okay, that it’s better to grieve imperfectly and silently and maybe even destructively than not at all, is at the heart of the film. Maybe Lee can teach Patrick, through osmosis, what his own limits fail with words. Maybe we can absorb something too.

I loved this humble, awkward, defiantly-non-awardsy film. It is absolutely not the broad, gut-punching melodrama its trailer makes it out to be. Every character feels lived-in and appropriately small, and Casey Affleck in particular is a total revelation. Chris and I reviewed it last week:

See my review on Letterboxd

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