Watch: How 'Manchester By the Sea' Portrays Grief Without Cliché

Manchester by the sea grief video essay no film school
Manchester by the Sea manages to depict grief without falling into cliché, and this video suggests how you can do the same.  

Sad movies abound in, in the words of Thomas Flight, "funerals in the rain...wakes with poignant moments between characters, the dramatic death bed scene." This essay argues that much of the strength of Manchester by the Seaone of the most grief-stricken films in recent memory—is a result of director Kenneth Lonergan's subversion of these traditions. Here's how the film handles grief, and some techniques that might help you depict the rawest of human emotions without striking a false note. [Note: spoilers ahead.]

Lonergan practices the art of defamiliarization; in film, audiences are used to big emotional moments being signposted, with "dramatic music cues," but in real life, "grief doesn't end when the camera cuts away," and the "huge events in our lives that are supposed to be emotional and foundational can pass by in a blur, shrouded in dullness." Hence the film, more often that not, focuses on "mistakes, annoyances and funny moments [that] are a part of real life."

Many of the most emotionally fraught moments are played in wide-shot, slow-motion, or out-of-earshot, so that they are defamiliarized to the audience, much in the same way that grief can feel like an alien sensation. And from a filmmaking perspective, "when the movie doesn't focus on the grief and the big moments, it feels less like a movie and more like reality....when grief does hit, it hits when we least expect it." So much of success in filmmaking lies in establishing a successful tone, a mood to maintain and modulate, alternately keeping the audience at arm's length and then letting the drama or tension break through in moments of quiet, unexpected emotion—all the more affecting for being unexpected.  

In this story of male grieving, set in a culture where men don't express their emotions with ease, if at all, Lonergan uses the tone of the film to be a sort of objective correlative for the emotional content onscreen. His strategy of subversion works so that when things explode onscreen, they go quiet inside, just the like the grief-numbed heads of the characters do. Even this climactic sequence, which would conventionally play as one of the most dramatic and over-the-top, has a quiet, meditative quality that is elegiac and contemplative. 

And that's what good films do. They find the ineffable, strange moments between people, those silences that resist definition, and somehow capture them, like fireflies in a jar. Manchester by the Sea is a masterful depiction of grief on film, and that's because it chooses its moments quietly. As a filmmaker, Lonergan does what all filmmakers would be wise to do: observe life, and all of its rich strangeness, and then work from that, rather than relying on the world that movies has created. Especially in films that aspire to emotional truth, the movies are there to depict life, and not the other way around.      

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I hate to be the one to say this, but I found this movie massively overrated and undisciplined. I really don't understand why it acquired so much acclaim at the awards. I wanted to love this film, truly, but in honesty I couldn't wait for it to be over.

April 13, 2017 at 12:50AM, Edited April 13, 12:50AM

Matt Carter
VFX Artist / Director / DP / Writer / Composer / Alexa Owner

Ugh! Thank you for saying that, Matt. I thought I was the only one who found this completely overrated and... cliché.

I'm not gonna get into a Lonergan rant, but let's just say he's been graced with some talented actors.

April 13, 2017 at 6:31PM

Lindsay Steven Mann
Director / Cinematographer

Thank you Matt! I totally agree. Like you, and despite WANTING to like it, I SUFFERED through most of the "film", if you can even call it that. Lonergan (a playwright) seems to have no idea what Film Language is. The whole thing felt more like a play than a film. It's staging/blocking and, unfortunately a lot of "scene-chewing" acting by actors who really need to work on their craft.I find it astonishing that Casey Affleck won the best actor Oscar, which does little more than confirm to me that Nepotism (capital "N") is alive and well in independent film, as well as Hollywood. More unbelievable is that Lonergan won for best original screenplay, The worst thing you can say about any so-called "art" (small "a") is that it's boring. Unfortunately, that's about the best thing I can say about this film. I know, I know, filmmaking is HARD and any film that actually gets made/finished is an accomplishment in itself, but without the BS, hype and Hollywood "players" like Matt Damon (producer) and Ben Affleck(brother to Casey)involved, this film would never have seen the light of day. So many more worthy candidates. So many better scripts, actors and worthy filmmakers.

April 14, 2017 at 9:39AM

Andrew Staniland

Great film to have on as you drift into REM sleep.

April 18, 2017 at 10:29AM

Luke Neumann