Year after year tinsel town can be counted upon to roll out an entire army of films featuring grizzled, muscular men, predictably going about doing what grizzled, muscular men do best—namely kicking ass and taking names all while stoically continuing to be grizzled, muscular men.
Performative is the word that comes to mind when attempting to quantify exactly what the traditional tinsel town format has been in regards to telling the story of men up until this point, with a few obvious exceptions (see: Brokeback Mountain.) Investigative is the new standard that these Oscar contenders, both enthralling love stories to the long unrepresented subject of true masculinity, have set together this season. Delicate, complex, poetic, humorous, and big-hearted are other descriptors that do not feel off base.
Please do not misunderstand me here. There are plenty of muscular men to be found in both “Moonlight” and“Manchester by the Sea.” Beards and fist fights as well. And while the traditional Hollywood blood quota (by the bucket full) is not quite met, there is enough of the stuff to satisfy.
With the release of “Manchester by the Sea” Kenneth Lonergan (Analyze This, Gangs of New York) has returned from his nearly fourteen-year writing hiatus in a touching, exquisitely simple film about that ever-frustrating, forever milked subject, family, and the deeply personal journey to healing in the wake of tragedy. The subject is one that this filmmaker knows well, though the tragedy in his case was artistic rather than paternal. After wrapping up filming of his last feature film “Margaret” in 2005, Lonergan found himself involved in a protracted and well-publicized battle with Fox Searchlight over the final edit, a disagreement that stretched until 2011 during which Lonergan’s longtime friend Martin Scorsese had to be brought in as a mediator. Although the film received wide spread critical acclaim, hailed as a masterpiece by many, poor marketing and a limited theatrical release in 14 theatres resulted in a domestic gross of a little more than $46,000.
In his book on mediation, the filmmaker David Lynch talks about the two deaths of an artist. The first, Lynch says, comes when an artist makes concessions about their work in order to satisfy another’s vision. The second death comes when that work is a failure, or in his own words “if you do what you believe in and have a failure, that’s one thing: you can still live with yourself. But if you don’t, it’s like dying twice. It’s very painful.”
Like the screenwriter who brought him to life, the character Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) has suffered a double death of sorts. The first is revealed early in the movie when the tight-lipped Bostonian gets a phone call informing him that his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has died suddenly, though not unexpectedly, due to complications from a heart defect, leaving Lee to care for his 16 year old nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Adoptive parent is a role that Lee, living an unglamorous life as a handy man and local drunk, is ill suited to play, but his brother has planned for this eventuality well by leaving behind a bought and paid for house, a lucrative fishing business, and a stipend to move Lee out of Boston and back to their small village, the name of which provides the source material of the film’s title.
There’s just one problem with the plan. Lee is hell bent on not moving back to his ancestral seat, the reasons for which are made clear in a series of intense flashbacks soon after he has returned. The movie lover with a devotion to drama and keen eye for plot could likely guess the nature of the tragedy that has left him an alienated, hollowed out shell of a person, but it is worth not spoiling anyway.
Michele Williams, playing Lee’s estranged wife Randi, does what she does best, dialing up the dramatic action in what amounts to a handful of actual scenes. If you think crying on camera is easy then that just means you have never tried doing it yourself. “Manchester” solidifies William’s reputation as the undisputed master of making the personal public, her emotional vulnerability a stark contrast to Affleck’s struggling stoicism, and the tension between the two opposites summons with its presence a breaking point which makes up on of the most memorable scenes of the film. A frazzled Gretchen Mol makes and appearance as Patrick’s absentee alcoholic mother, and Rubio Qian manages to fill out her two scenes as Joe’s cardiologist with surprisingly memorable warmth.
Equally memorable is Lucas Hedges as the outwardly confident, inwardly struggling young man processing an upended world in which his father is gone and his future rests in the hands of an uncle who is hardly able to cope himself with the circumstances of their new reality.
One trope that you will find alive and well: During the climax of the film Affleck kicks in a door behind which his nephew has fallen silent after an argument over differing opinions on what the future of their patchwork family will look like. In a lesser film this moment would end in either a Freudian fistfight between Patrick and Lee, or a cathartic feel good hug fest resolution. Lonergan avoids both of those traps by instead having Lee occupy a chair in the corner of the room. While Lee might lack the emotional intelligence to act as a harbor for his nephew, his presence is the docking cleat to which Patrick can tie off his life raft in order to wait out the storm that has engulfed his life, and for these fishermen a cleat might just be enough to see them through their losses.
“Sometimes I cry so much that I wish I could turn into liquid and roll out into the ocean.“
That quote, delivered by the protagonist of “Moonlight”, is a great movie line in the classic tradition. That is to say it sums up the inner struggle of the character in question while managing to not dip into self-indulgent territory. It does not matter whether of not you’ve read it: when the line is delivered with devastating sincerity by Ashton Sanders, one of the actors who channels Chiron during the three acts of this triptych style film, it will still knock the wind out of you. Composer Nicholas Britell and director Barry Jenkins have taken this screenplay, based on the play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue” by Tarrell Alvin McCraney, and infused it with so much visual and audio poetry that nothing will be lost with a small spoiler or two.
The stage is set with an opening scene featuring young Chiron aka “Little” (Alex R. Hibbert) running from a gang of bullies. Little hides out in a squat in the Liberty City neighborhood of Miami, where he is rescued by a local crack dealer named Juan (Mahershala Ali). It is worth mentioning that both Jenkins and McCraney grew up mere blocks apart from one another in this neighborhood, known primarily for being one of the poorest areas in America.
Juan and his girlfriend, Teressa, become an unlikely source of stability for Chiron, their home a refuge on the evenings when he finds himself locked out of his own due to the destructive lifestyle of an addict mother (Naomie Harris). These three actors form a powerhouse foundation for the rest of the film.
Harris, who was reluctant to play the part of an addict until Jenkins explained that the character was based on his own mother, pulls no punches as a Paula, a masterful performance for which she earned herself an Oscar nod (and with any justice, a win) while shooting for a total of three days. Ali, who has also received a nomination for this role and is probably best known for his part as Remy Denton on the break out Netflix hit “House of Cards,” brings kind of balanced bravado to the character of Juan, so much so that it is easy to believe while he is a man willing to take in a lost boy, he is equally capable of using a gun in order to carve a place for himself in the world.
And while Juan might be the king on the street, inside the home Teressa (a tender Janelle Monae) is the undisputed ruler, an iron fist in a velvet glove. Over her home cooked meals Little learns to keep his elbows off of the table, his head up while he eats. It is Teressa who gives him spending money that is later confiscated by Paula to feed her crack habit, Teressa who sits across from Juan while he explains to Little that a faggot “is a word used to make gay people feel bad.”
“Am I a faggot?” Little replies.
“No. You’re not a faggot. You can be gay, but you don’t have to let nobody call you a faggot.”
Identity is under the microscope here, and if Jenkins has provided us a lens through which to peer into that most intimate place, then Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes, the actors who offer up their interpretation of Chiron during the second two acts of the film, have given their audience a most detailed slide. Interestingly none of the three actors were allowed to communicate or see the work of their counterparts during the course of the filming. The fact that you never doubt for a moment that all three accurately represent the character at different phases in his life is a testament to the actors and the quality of the material that they had to work from.
It should go without saying that homophobia is not unique to black communities. It expresses itself in different ways all across the American psyche. While many choose to poke fun at the subject, or shy away from it entirely, Jenkins (who is only the fourth Black filmmaker ever nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Director category) and his team, while working on a shoestring budget, crafted his feature film debut into a masterpiece in 25 days. Adding to the dramatic effect is Britell’s unique blend of “chop and screw” hip-hop and classical compositions, a mash-up that obtains its most potent effect as a storytelling device when he screws and chops the films orchestral composition deep in the second act, earning him a nomination for original score.
Not to be outdone by every other Hollywood film about men, “Moonlight” does climax with a showdown, but it replaces the O. K. Corral with a diner and the hot lead and iron of a gunfight with an expertly wielded chef’s knife and Cuban style comfort food. Add in two bottles of wine and jukebox serenading Chiron and his lost and found again first love Kevin (Andre Holland) with “Hello Stranger” by Barbara Lewis, and the audience is left with one of the most equally tense and touching climactic sequences in cinematic history.
What would a future in American cinema look like in which masculinity is dealt with as an idea to be explored rather than a stereotype to be presented? If “Manchester” and “Moonlight” are any indication, then the future might just be a little bit brighter today than it was yesterday.