Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester By the Sea begins with what seems like a common approach for a film set in New England: tranquil images of an idyllic small town presented in all its quaint charm and aesthetic. In this case, we see shoreline-hugging colonial homes, harbors ornamented with boats undulating in the Bay of Massachusetts, and centuries-old churches sprinkled among the ever-present trees.
New England-set movies can be prone to using their settings like matte paintings—colorful backdrops meant to enhance the sense of a place, not recreate all that much of the place itself. Sometimes the colors used are literal, with cameras lingering on stone houses nestled in Technicolor autumnal foliage (All That Heaven Allows), sunset-kissed pathways between Ivy League (Good Will Hunting) or private school buildings (Dead Poets Society), or overcast grey days mirrored in the clothes and places below (Dolores Claiborne, Shawshank Redemption). Sometimes the colors used are cultural, with narratives employing the distinct accents of Red Sox-worshipping Bostonians (Mystic River), or the crisp collared shirts and Ralph Lauren sweaters of affluent Connecticuters gathered around a dining table (Rachel Getting Married).
Whatever colors are used, New England-set movies tend to use their locations to move past local specifics to get to something deeper. That doesn’t mean they compromise authenticity in favor of other narrative ambitions. The South Boston of Dennis Lehane and Ben Affleck, the Maine of Stephen King, or the Connecticut of Douglas Sirk and Ang Lee don’t grossly misrepresent their settings. These artists can, however, use the locations somewhat incidentally in favor of telling their stories of crime, horror, tragedy, or whimsical small-town life (or the illusion of whimsical small-town life). Considering the quality of the films in question, that’s not a punishable offense. It has, however, resulted in few New England movies feeling not set in, but deeply rooted, in the locations they’re calling cinematic home.
To return to the opening of Manchester By the Sea, the temptation may be to watch it and anticipate the same. But Lonergan’s film understands New England in ways few movies do. It’s not just the little details recognizable to those of us—like myself—who have lived there: the mundane two-lane highways running through the densely forested body of New England like veins; the habit of residents to complain about the cold, while never wearing an appropriate coat; the communal openness of its people, juxtaposed with the frequent stoicism of withheld emotions; the shuttling of teenagers between home and their friends’ on streetlight-less streets. No, what especially distinguishes Manchester By the Sea is that it understands the relationship New England—most of all Massachusetts—has with its history, and how the past is always moving just beneath the surface, like fish below the ice of a frozen pond.
Of course, history isn’t inconsequential in other New England-set films. Take a trifecta of movies about affluent Connecticut: Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm looks back at how a souring of American innocence in the 1970s found its way into affluent suburbia, Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows explores the small town classism of the 1950s as it was happening, and Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven casts its eyes on the same period to illustrate the obstacles minorities and the LGBT community faced. History is not incidental in those films. However, the histories they are exploring are not regional, but national. Connecticut is used to produce broader (and compelling) allegories about America as a whole, not in a specific part. Those films don’t push in, so much as pull back. Manchester By the Sea pushes in.
The town Kenneth Lonergan named his film after was settled in 1629, and spent its first 200 years as a fishing community—an identity it never fully shed, even as the 1840s saw it begin to become a summer retreat for rich Bostonians. You may not know that, but the film does. History is always just barely in the peripheral in New England, and Manchester-by-the-Sea’s is just barely off the pages of Lonergan’s screenplay. When an older man recounts how his father was lost at sea, it evokes the town’s past as a fishing community. When Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is told that Joe (Kyle Chandler), his recently deceased brother, can’t be buried during winter because the bulldozer required to break the cold ground would risk damaging the “historical graveyard,” it illustrates the past the town sits upon. When we see shots of old church steeples reaching for the sky, like spiritual cousins to the lighthouses along the coast, it recalls a religious devotion extending back to when (and why) the United States was first colonized. Even the choir arrangements that punctuate the film’s score seem appropriate for a movie about a town that has a well-known local attraction called the “Singing Beach.”
But we’re dealing with Kenneth Lonergan, a very deliberate filmmaker, and the incorporation of the peripheral history of Manchester-by-the-Sea isn’t simply a matter of making a movie that honors the authentic feel and legacy of a New England place. Setting a film in a town that has a lot of history is no accident in a movie about grief. For what is grief but an emotional state in which the past isn’t so much moved forward from, as dragged along like a faulty anchor? It is this which makes Manchester By the Sea such a wonderful and rare New England film: it grafts its core story about Lee, a man who can’t escape his tragic past, to the place where it was forged. The two become inseparable.
It’s why, when Lee gets a call that Joe has died, the closer he gets back home, the more prominent his flashbacks become—until we get to the moment that destroyed him. He may be returning to a place of history, but that history is also returning to him. Lee never revisits a single location we see in his flashbacks; he doesn’t have to. His history—like the town’s—lives beyond him. It lives in the whispers of “That’s the Lee Chandler?” from coaches in hockey arenas, it explodes in a chance encounter with an ex in an unassuming backstreet, it’s released in the creaky chair of a lawyer’s office listening to his brother’s will be read. History has seeped itself into the town, as much as it’s seeped into him.
If any doubt remains that the opening shots of Manchester By the Sea were ornamental, they should be put to rest when the movie ends. After the image of Lee fishing with his nephew fades, we see quiet images again of the town (beneath the closing credits) that are no different than those we’ve seen before. Manchester By the Sea ends as it begins—bookended in a way that feels like for two hours what we saw was one person’s history temporarily plucked from the town’s, like a book removed from a shelf, and then returned. Those final images tell us this place has been, is, and will continue to be. It will carry the history of its place and people silently forward, and it will do so in the grains of sand on beaches washed over by the tides, in the dried mortar applied centuries ago to bricks in a church’s foundation, in the air that hungry seagulls drift on during windy days, in the groans of a fishing boat’s ailing motor. It’s there too in the wayward bounce of a rubber ball Lee tries to pass to Patrick near the end of the Manchester By the Sea, and in Lee’s response, the last lines of the movie: “Just let it go.” He can’t, as the movie so heartbreakingly assures us, but neither can New England. In that, maybe, he is not in such bad company.