Manchester + Moonlight: Indie Power

manchester-by-the-sea

Midway through Manchester by the Sea, Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is in a meeting with a lawyer, and it’s not exactly going well. His brother John (Kyle Chandler) has just passed away from a rare heart disease – and in his will, he’s decided to entrust guardianship of his high school son Patrick (Lucas Hedges) to Lee. As someone who barely squeaks by in life with a minimum-wage salary and who’s remained aloof from his family for several years, Lee simply can’t fathom this idea.  He starts protesting, but when the lawyer gently points out that everything has already been arranged, he only manages to sputter out, “I’m just a backup.” Of all people, why me?

At its core, Manchester is a story about “backups,” a story of people who suddenly find themselves pushed to confront responsibilities they never asked for or even actively sought to avoid. Its basic premise is as simple as it appears – Lee’s brother dies, and Lee is thus forced to return to his hometown in northern Massachusetts, confront the life he left behind, and pick up the pieces with Patrick. Yet contrary to what we’re used to, the way in which Lee’s search for some semblance of equilibrium unfolds carries little or no dramatic structuring: flashbacks to Lee’s traumatic past abruptly intrude into the present, odd moments of humor are juxtaposed with quietly devastating scenes of grief, and whenever it looks like Lee is on the verge of moving on, he meets someone or does something that draws him back into his shell. Climaxes, resolutions, and moments of emotional “epiphany” are simply nowhere to be seen in this film defined by its maddening ordinariness, a reflection of director Kenneth Lonergan’s refusal to simplify the nonlinear fits and starts of Lee’s journey back from the outskirts of society.

Some will certainly find the final result too frustratingly ambiguous for comfort. It’s more likely, however, that you’ll be deeply moved by its honesty, a characteristic which, beyond Lonergan’s direction, largely owes itself to Affleck’s powerhouse performance. Once upon a time, before tragedy struck his life, Lee was happy, the kind of talkative, boisterous person who’d horse around with nephews and stay up late playing pool with friends. Right from the get-go, the movie provides a poignant illustration of how far he’s fallen since, opening with a series of scenes in which people loudly chat on the phone or openly discuss sexual fantasies while Lee slaves away in the background at the thankless task of fixing the toilet or pipes. He’s become antisocial to the point that the only kind of conversation he’s good at involves four-letter words and his two fists. Such a painfully reserved character could easily come off as empty or boring, but Affleck takes full advantage of every possible gesture and movement to illustrate the wide spectrum of emotions Lee experiences beneath his impassive façade. Without being artificial or over-rehearsed, he provides a vivid, mesmerizing portrait of a person who wants to make himself understood but has simply been cut off from the company of others for too long to remember how.

In a way, the timing of Manchester’s release couldn’t be more perfect. This was a year singularly defined by the inability of many Americans to communicate openly and honestly with one another, after all, and one of the most salient features of the movie is the difficulty all the characters have interacting with each other. It’s a difficulty that becomes especially pronounced among the male characters – not just Lee but Patrick, John, and others, too. They only manage to convey their thoughts either through awkward bouts of silence or loud, sudden outbursts of anger or anxiety, as if they’re struggling to harness their wounded masculinity to properly express how they feel. Put them in the proper social context – they’re working-class people struggling with bills and limited paychecks in a region built on blue-collar jobs – and you can’t help but see the striking similarities between their problems and the larger undercurrents that just propelled Donald Trump to victory. The connection is always and only implicit, but in a way, Manchester, beyond providing a moving, thoughtful study of grief, also serves as an indirect portrait of a part of the American psyche many barely recognized as even existent before a month ago. If the greater emotional nuances don’t hold you, Lee, Patrick et al. should at least serve as an oblique reminder of where our country stands at this point in 2016 – and how much we have to do going forward.

***

Early on in Moonlight, a man named Juan (Mahershala Ali) takes the protagonist, a nine-year old boy named Chiron, for a swim in the ocean. He holds Chiron behind his head and legs and lowers him into the water, a pose whose religious connotations – think Mary holding Jesus – almost make the scene look like a baptism. Yet Juan, as fatherly as he seems, is anything but a saint; in fact, he’s the drug dealer responsible for nurturing Chiron’s mother’s (Naomie Harris) crack addiction. It’s a strange contrast of images that only grows more stark after Juan lets Chiron go for a quick swim alone moments later; we watch as Chiron barely manages to keep afloat against a tide that looks ready to engulf him. Add the grey sky and the haunting violin score in the background, and you get the nagging feeling that the world Chiron is being “baptized” into isn’t going to give him much reason to feel blessed.

Such visual and thematic complexity permeates the entirety of Moonlight, which takes us worlds away from Manchester’s New England to place us instead in the crumbling, poverty-ridden outskirts of Miami. In an environment where the only white person you’ll ever meet is the police officer taking you to jail, the movie creates a triptych portrait of Chiron in various stages of growing up, first as a child mockingly nicknamed “Little” (Alex Hibbert), then as a teenager (Ashton Sanders) bullied for being gay, and finally as an adult in Atlanta (Trevante Rhodes). To call it a coming-of-age story wouldn’t be quite right. If anything, Moonlight shows, often with devastating beauty, that no matter how much Chiron appears to change – once the wimpy kid picked on in the playground, he grows into a buff drug dealer sporting earrings and gold bracelets – he’s actually always dealing with the same fundamental issues: the tension between his sexuality and masculinity, a fraught relationship with his mother, a desire to assert himself, and an underlying struggle to find love in a stratum of society defined by crime, prison time and a deeply-rooted “survival of the fittest” mentality. The acting is pitch-perfect throughout, and even if parts of the movie feel a tad protracted, every scene will leave you shaken; the second act might just have you in tears.

In many places, moreover, you could even say Moonlight goes beyond giving “only” such a brutally true-to-life depiction of growing up black, gay, and poor in America. It occasionally annoys with its inability to stand still, but for the most part, the “cheap” camerawork so characteristic of indies does an exceptional job here of imbuing objective reality with a pervasive surrealness, as if it seeks to shed light on Chiron’s inner emotional state. As one example, the scene where Chiron first becomes aware of his sexuality, with faint white moonlight illuminating the area where he and his friend sit, pitch blackness in front of them, and a shot of the two staring at each other in almost symmetrical sitting poses, creates an otherworldly atmosphere that elegantly conveys both the fascination and insecurity Chiron experiences in the moment. And in another memorable place, glaring neon lighting provides a jarring, spooky backdrop to an image of Chiron’s mother in the act of yelling, an addition that deftly highlights both the debilitating influence of drugs on Chiron’s upbringing and his complicated feelings towards his lone blood relation. So many moments in the movie carry this kind of meticulous visual poetry, and with them, the thoughts and emotions flowing through Chiron’s mind get elevated to a lasting transcendence.

In light of Hollywood’s recent issues with diversity, many have praised the contributions Moonlight makes to African-American and LGBT cinema. Some, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, have pointed out the indirect commentary the movie makes on issues related to policing and race relations. All of these allusions to current problems are there and deserve our full attention.  Yet one must be careful to avoid taking Moonlight’s undeniable social relevance as an excuse to typecast it as simply “a good movie about black people” or “a good movie about gay people.” The underlying message of Chiron’s story – a message about love, identity, and dignity – speaks to ideas that go beyond race, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic class. As Ralph Wiley once put it to Saul Bellow, there is no “Tolstoy of the Zulus” but Tolstoy himself; no matter who makes it, art speaks to and for everyone, white or black, gay or straight. In that spirit, Barry Jenkins, in filming a story buried in unique, deeply personal particulars, has made a movie universal in its message. Moonlight is not and never will be “just” a “black movie” or “a gay movie”; there is only Moonlight and the truths it tells about all of us.


Manchester by the Sea

Moonlight

Starring:

Casey Affleck

Michelle Williams

Lucas Hedges

Kyle Chandler

Alex Hibbert

Ashton Sanders

Trevante Rhodes

André Holland

Janelle Monáe

Mahershala Ali

Naomie Harris

Running Time:

133 minutes

110 minutes

MPAA Rating:

R

R

Produced by:

Kimberly Steward

Matt Damon

Chris Moore

Lauren Beck

Kevin Walsh

Adele Romanski

Dede Gardner

Jeremy Kleiner

Directed by:

Kenneth Lonergan

Barry Jenkins

Written by:

Kenneth Lonergan

Barry Jenkins

Adaptation?

N/A

Based on a play originally written by Tarell Alvin McCraney: In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue.