Dec 28 2016

Manchester by the Sea: muddling through tragedy

maureen

I don’t usually recommend tear-jerkers because there is enough tragedy to deal with in real life, but Manchester By the Sea is so honest, so real, and so captivating that I think it’s worth the vicarious pain. The performances alone are worth seeing. It’s depiction of grief is profoundly genuine. And it considers three really important questions: Is there a timetable for getting over devastating life experiences? Is not moving on from our heartbreaks selfish? Are there wounds that just won’t heal?

Lee Chandler must confront all his ghosts when he returns home to deal with his older brother’s death and make provisions for his nephew. Lee is a withdrawn janitor with painful past while his nephew Patrick is a self-centered teen hockey player with two girlfriends and a terrible rock band. The back and forth between Lee and his nephew offers moments of dark humor that pain frequently creates. Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges give fantastic, truthful performances. Really, everyone playing the main characters gave spot on performances that made the film feel so real.

Lee’s story unfolds in a series of flashbacks and conversations with people from his small Massachusetts hometown. Most of them either can’t understand how he hasn’t moved on from the past or can’t stop judging him for what happened in the past. We’ve all known people who seem to take a long time to recover from grief and/or guilt, and some that never seem to. I don’t want to give this movie away, so, even with the spoiler alert, that’s all I’m going to say about that.

Manchester By the Sea is full of real people muddling through life’s hard experiences. The story builds to that expected character arc and abruptly ends mid-muddle. Because that’s the way real-life stories are. We don’t all resolve at the same time. Not every experience comes with closure. This story isn’t about closure, it’s about love. In spite of their imperfect processing of devastating events, these characters love each other.

Back to the questions. Is there a timetable for getting over devastating life experiences? I was personally affected by this movie because I think I rush this process. This movie made me pause and ask whether people like Lee hide from people like me. I realized that I can’t possible know what it takes to get over something I haven’t experienced. Nor can I know what it’s like to be someone other than myself getting over something I have experienced. So, thanks, author and director Kenneth Lonergan, for the instructive parable. I might never tell anyone to “get over it” again. At least about anything important.

Is refusing to move on selfish? Lee’s pain isolates him from people who care about him. Lee’s pain prevents him from having the relationship with his nephew that his nephew needs from him. Lee knows this but, I think for him, moving on feels selfish. For Lee to move on minimizes the loss he’s experienced and the guilt he feels he owes. Holding onto it makes it remain important. Lee doesn’t know how to process the importance of what happened in the past without allowing it to define him in the present and future.

Are there wounds that just won’t heal? Well, Frodo had to leave Middle Earth to get relief. Maybe Lee can’t survive in Manchester, at least as he is now. The film seems to build a false expectation that all this misery might be be miraculously lifted by letting go, opening up, changing attitudes, or doing something else. But the ending suggests that resolution is not that simple.

One would hope that our relationships with God define us more than the core memories and climactic experiences in our life stories. Nevertheless we all walk around with unresolved pieces of our stories. Faith is not an instant cure for heartbreak or recovery. Forgiveness does not always result in an instant lifting of guilt feelings. God applies His healing balm to our open wounds, over time, often through relationships with others, and later, to our scars. But sometimes our wounds close very slowly, and trying to put a timeline on closure only pours salt on the wound. Manchester By the Sea reminded me that love is patient and kind. We contribute to healing not by trying to “fix” each other or to rush whatever we are processing to resolution, but by loving each other in the unresolved middle of our muddles.