Our world experience is full of loss and grief every day, so why would we voluntarily submit ourselves to movies about these things? A view we hadn’t considered: a filmmaker whose perspective on loss might make us feel less alone; dreams of others reach where the cold starkness of written words might not. Can we, would we, want to survive terrible pain with only the distant suffering connecting us, or do we need something more than beautifully created meditations on grief? These are the questions bouncing through my head after seeing two remarkably gorgeous films in one day, each to slightly different effect. Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea and Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight are similarly — at times, languidly — paced; both spotlight broken families, substance abuse (in one form or another), irreparable loss, and the power of quiet moments in and on the ocean.
In Lonergan’s Manchester, Casey Affleck’s plodding-through-the-motions existence as loner handyman Lee Chandler is disrupted by the mostly unexpected death of his older brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), and the subsequent bomb-dropped responsibility for his 16-year-old nephew, Patrick (played by hugely talented Lucas Hedges). It’s a path punctuated with moments of great and much-appreciated humor; we tread in step alongside Lee as he registers his shock; matter-of-factly denies his capability loudly and inappropriately, a running theme in his single, don’t-give-a-fuck life. With Patrick’s mother estranged and no real immediate alternatives, Lee grudgingly, although, at times, in a softer than expected manner, gets himself and Patrick through the necessary realities of the situation. His brother’s — a father’s — body in the dead of winter proves a more emotional punch than might be predicted — driving his charge between school, practices, and girlfriends — more humorous; awkward. We want things to work out the way anyone would expect them to — curmudgeonly uncle finds unpredictable rewards in unplanned parenthood — but Lonergan has uglier things in store. As flashes of Lee’s full life begin intertwining through the present day, the depths of his grief grab hold of and twist our understanding. Indifference and calm stupor alternate with explosive and violent outbursts; connecting with anyone at all seems beyond any ability; hope against hope for something in Lee to snap is tragically snuffed, and there simply is no light left in a completely broken, guilt-ridden man. Casey Affleck continues to shine with a realistic, everyman performance that wrenches and leaves every fiber of our being wishing for more … more light, more release, and, most of all, something more than the all-encompassing weight of the inescapable, crushing grief he can’t escape. While Michelle Williams’ screentime is limited, what she gives is quietly and powerfully devastating. With Manchester by the Sea, Lonergan sets his audience adrift … with only a few bitter pangs of humor as company. Helpless in the middle of an unending, albeit beautiful ocean of sadness, we float with no hope of rescue.
Barry Jenkins’ equally gorgeous and sad meditation on a life has one small difference: a tiny speck of light. While one could argue that Manchester‘s last shot offers at least a glimpse of possibility, the film’s entirety — and Lee Chandler’s own words, “I tried, I just can’t get back” — leaves little doubt: nothing will change. Moonlight, on the other hand, shares a man’s life, beginning as a nearly silent young boy called “Little” (Alex Hibbert) through his “Black” (Ashton Sanders) adolescence and early adulthood. Chiron’s (Westworld‘s Trevonte Rhodes) world is at times so bleak; so empty, alone, and sad, it could (and, at times, does) leave you broken-hearted, but not without hope.
Inserted amid a gaggle of elementary-aged kids chasing Little (Hibbart), presumably to beat him up, we breathlessly follow him to relative safety in an abandoned building, where he’s later discovered by Juan (Mahershala Ali), just about the nicest crack dealer you’d ever want to run into. Recognizing a bit of himself in Little — a resemblance that’s later called back in an unexpected way — Juan is soft and smiling, coaxes Little out for food and, when he can’t get anything out of the boy about where he lives, entrusts Little to his girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monáe), gifting him with the maternal safety the young boy craves. Far from even a whiff of stereotype, Juan provides small respite: there is immediate acceptance of Little just as he is; a quiet understanding of things a boy might not even know how to express. As Little’s single mother (Naomie Harris) begins to slip away from him — and reality — his life crumbles further; sporadic stolen moments with Juan and Teresa give Little only a breath through the storm of his increasingly tumultuous world. In a particularly heartbreaking interlude, Juan is forced to face his part in the circle, just as a boy must grow up. Out of one heated school door and into the flames of high school bullydom, teenaged Chiron (Sanders) rides the waves without thought or choice, just trying to stay upright no matter who or what tears him down. Somehow, in the midst of mere survival, this young man hasn’t even taken a moment to consider who he might be. He is defined by circumstance until, in one sweet, utterly unexpected, and tender encounter with his childhood friend Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), Chiron experiences a moment of closeness and warmth that finally allows him the self-awareness he’s never had. It is all too short-lived.
Abandoned and brutalized by the only person he could come close to considering a friend, Chiron eventually breaks. In the blink of an eye, another decisive incident leads to an all-out audience cheer-inducing moment, only to be quickly followed by deflating reality. When we meet again, Chiron is a man (Rhodes) … a very different man, changed as we all are by experience; not who he wants to be as much as what he’s had to become. Distanced, but not separated from his past, Chiron plays his best imitation game. The circle is complete. The breathtaking beauty of Jenkins’ storytelling is obvious in his actors’ faces, the long camera shots, the quiet ride-along, and silent, inescapable tears we share during moments of forgiveness; the experience is wrenching and visceral. When seemingly impossible emotions force open a door just the slightest crack, Chiron finally experiences a real connection with another human being, and that’s the gift of hope Moonlight leaves.
Every single Moonlight actor, from each set of the boys to the men who play Chiron and Kevin to Naomi Harris — incredible as a despicable mother who somehow manages to make us feel anything at all for her character — to Ali and Janelle Monáe, is spectacular. Just as in Manchester by the Sea, aloneness and isolation are explored during the course of extremely emotional events; grief is our constant companion, and a necessary peek at a single ray of light is the defining demarcation. Where Manchester leaves impressions of award-worth actors and gorgeous cinematography, its emptied cup can’t compete with Moonlight‘s lasting emotional imprint: a journey of hope and humanity.
Manchester by the Sea and Moonlight screened at the 54th New York Film Festival. Moonlight opens in theaters October 21st; Manchester by the Sea, November 18th.