Parliaments and Sugar Maples

How Manchester by the Sea gets Massachusetts just right


I am reluctant to talk about the specifics of my upbringing in Massachusetts — bored, in fact — but that in itself says a lot about the place. The specific psychological petrification practiced by those of us who hail from Massachusetts evokes stark sugar maples in winter: even stripped raw and exposed to the elements, we remain unmoved. And that brings me to Manchester by the Sea.

People go to the movies for a myriad of reasons: to be entertained, challenged, and transported, sure, but also in the hope of seeing themselves projected onto the screen. Director Kenneth Lonergan’s latest does more than simply succeed technically as a drama. Manchester achieves what no other movie has done for me thus far: it renders Massachusetts accurately.

Lonergan, who’s made three films, long ago established himself as an adept excavator of emotional bedrock. You Can Count on Me (2000) and Margaret (2011) explore what happens to smart, funny East Coast-dwellers in the face of a senseless tragedy, and Manchester By the Sea literally doubles down on this research method. The narrative kicks off with the death of the protagonist’s brother, but that’s only one half of the trauma bearing down on Lee (Casey Affleck), a taciturn janitor who spends his days plunging toilets and his evenings beating the shit out of strangers in bars. The horrific accident which reduced Lee to a gnarled stump of his former self is revealed to the audience gradually, through seamless flashbacks.

In 1995, the Danish directors Thomas Vinterberg and Lars von Trier drew up a manifesto for Dogme 95, a filmmaking movement aspiring to lionize what they deemed the fundamentals of movie-making: story, character, theme. The manifesto consisted of several “vows,” one of which demanded that “sound never be produced apart from the images or vice versa.” I thought of this decree as I watched the movie for a second time. Lonergan is an opera fan, and so a key sequence in Manchester is backed by swelling strings and wailing mezzo-soprano, but the most effective scenes were scored not by Pavarotti but instead by the sort of ambient noise that stamps a Massachusetts geotag firmly onto the frame.

When Lee crunches down an ill-lit avenue to pick up beer and snacks, I saw me at seventeen, careening drunkenly out the passenger-side door of a beat up Honda Civic to raid the Comm Ave 7/11. I heard my friends in the acerbic dialogue, but not so much in the accents, an unfortunate staple of every “Boston” movie which yet again serves as a comfortable reminder that what you’re watching is fiction, not your own memories. I watched Patrick sob in front of an open refrigerator and smelled my dad’s leftover pizza steaming on the counter. I watched myself, played by Anna Baryshnikov, strike an intimidating pose in her underwear: “so do you wanna fuck me or what?”

Each unfolding scene lit up in my skull like a Kendall Square Christmas tree: the sound of a cheap cell phone vibrating against a solid wood church pew, the slam of sliding glass doors against brutal wind chill, kissing in a musty twin bed.

Important sequences of my own life seem to fit neatly into Lonergan’s vision. Manchester reminded me that I didn’t cry at my grandmother’s funeral. Not on the long walk from our blue station wagon to the gravesite covered by a tent, not when bagpipes began to blare plaintively across the misty cemetery, not when her coffin trundled cozily downward into its final resting place. “What’s wrong with you?” my sister hissed as we drove away, her eyes wet and raw pink behind her glasses. I was 8 years old; she had just turned 6. “Why did you wear that dress?” I crossed my arms defensively over the yellow summer shift patterned with sunflowers. “I thought she’d like them,” I replied.

Much has already been written of Affleck’s incredible performance. His work has apparently proven good enough to overshadow the multiple allegations of sexual assault leveled against him, which have frothed to the surface in the wake of Manchester’s release, or perhaps he was just born white enough. In a sick, poetic way, I find Casey Affleck’s brilliance as an actor to be in total accordance with his history of monstrous behaviour towards female colleagues. Along with his movie star brother, Ben, Casey has long stood in as an avatar for a particular strain of Massachusetts manhood, and he fits these roles like a dream. With his dark hair and finely carved nose, he reminds me of the high school classmate with perfect grades who assaulted me in the back seat of my own car.

Maybe soon, someone will figure out how to create an atmospheric work of Massachusetts-centric cinema without including perpetrators of rape culture in the project. Until then, we have Manchester By The Sea.