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Manchester By The Sea

May 20, 2020 (996 words)

It turns out we had a copy of this November 2016 theatrical release kicking around the house, so i didn’t need to rent it on Amazon Prime Video in order to watch it again recently.

It’s what the critics call a “moody drama,” which is my favorite type of movie.

For such a somber tale I’m happy to note it enjoyed its fair share of commercial success. It also received a nomination for Best Picture, and won the Academy Award for Best Actor (Casey Affleck).

One of the first things that hit you is just how well the film is scored. The classical music selections that play behind many otherwise quiet scenes with no dialogue do a remarkable job of conveying deeply felt emotion. It’s a reminder of – or perhaps an introduction to – how poignant this musical genre can be.

The popular music on the soundtrack is also evocative, especially when sung by a talented vocalist such as, say, Ella Fitzgerald. But classical music has a much richer instrumental pallet to draw upon.

The use of flashbacks in the movie lets us gain an appreciation of the tragic circumstances, and understand the inner turmoil being experienced by the protagonist (Affleck), in stages.

Early on that protagonist is asked to become the legal guardian of his 16 year-old nephew, after the early death of the boy’s father (and the protagonist’s older brother.)

The flashbacks show us the special bond that had developed between the uncle and the nephew in earlier times. This gives us a better feel for the 16 year-old version of the nephew than we might otherwise have, since he comes off as a belligerent jerk toward his uncle in the present day.

All the characters in this piece are perceptively drawn, but making an annoying 16 year-old sympathetic is a special accomplishment, I think, and a tribute to both the screenwriter and the young actor in the role (Lukas Hedges).

Casey Affleck carries the picture, of course, since he’s in just about every scene. But the actress Michelle Williams, as his wife, also makes a powerful impression with far less screen time.

The emotional heart of this emotional movie is a scene more than halfway in. The estranged couple bumps into each other on a side street in their little hometown, near the waterfront.

She is pushing a stroller with a new infant born of her post-Affleck relationship. He hasn’t had any luck yet, scrounging for seasonal work around the docks and auto repair shops.

They exchange awkward pleasantries. She is solicitous. He tries to be. She becomes profusely apologetic. He remains shell-shocked, all-but-non-responsive. She expresses regret for the things she said in the wake of their mutual loss. Tears ensure. Before long he has to walk away, still unable to access his emotions.

I don’t know how much of this dialogue was scripted, and how much was improvised. But, boy, it sure feels real. This scene remains as powerful as when I first experienced it. The entire movie is like that, but this one scene really stands out for me.

The empathy Ms. Williams conveys for her ex-husband and father of their three dead children is truly heart-rending. The humanity she is able to capture in this moment is the mark of a true artist.

And while I haven’t been keeping up with Michelle Williams’ career since her role in “Manchester”, I was nevertheless dismayed to hear she earned the wrath of the pro-life community in January of this year, upon receiving an award for a different role in a more recent movie.

There is a YouTube video of the acceptance speech in question, and watching it I found her presentation to be very thoughtful, delivered in a serious and conscientious manner.

In my opinion her pro-life critics went way overboard. Which does not mean I agree with everything Ms. Williams said that night – but then I don’t agree with everything that anybody has to say.

This latest dust-up is just one more reason why we need to re-think our notion of how best to conduct cultural warfare. Take abortion, for instance. In accepting her award Ms. Williams seemed to imply that she has had an abortion. If she has, I grieve for her dead child and her confused conscience.

But making a mistake – no matter how serious that mistake may be – is not supposed to automatically condemn any of us to eternal damnation. We all have access to forgiveness and mercy, if we are willing to admit fault and make an honest attempt to mend the error of our ways.

And every single one of us is involved in this very same project: owning up to our mistakes and trying to mend our ways. It’s not our place to pass judgment on where someone else happens to be on that “acknowledging fault” continuum.

There is nothing wrong with letting Michelle Williams know that abortion should not factor into how one approaches the reproductive act. Indeed, we have an obligation to do so. It’s another thing to deride her as a callous monster – which is how she was characterized in certain pro-life publications and media outlets.

All for falling prey to the spirit of the age.

Isn’t that exactly what so many of us are also doing, in one way or another, in direct opposition to the dictates of our faith?

Leading by example is the best correction any of us can offer, even if it takes the message a while to get through in our noisy world. Showing charity to those who falter is usually the better part of valor. Turning the other cheek when we are wronged is what we have been instructed to do.

These are among the underlying messages of my favorite movies. It’s the sort of thing I take away from the lives of the troubled souls whose stories are brought to life so vividly in the magnificent Manchester By The Sea.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr
May 20, 2020

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