Arts essay: Transcendence breaks into Tinseltown

Saoirse Ronan as Lady Bird and Casey Affleck as Lee Chandler in Manchester by the Sea

If films reflect the culture they are born in, then what do coming-of-age stories look like in our own time when narcissism and misery prevail among the young? (If you think I’m exaggerating, then please read psychologist Jean Twenge’s iGen). The answer, of course, is narratives obsessed with individualism and identity. Add some plinky-plonky music and a stylishly abrupt ending; and pretend it all means something. The more “out there” the better. Yes, it’s safe to say that the only thing we do not expect from Hollywood, in its search for something to say, is a nod to the transcendent.

There are, of course, some notable exceptions to this. One is Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird (2018), reviewed here recently by Bishop Robert Barron. The same applies to another film, Manchester by the Sea (2016). Both explore the relationships between parents and teenagers in our ostensibly post-Christian society by drawing, indirectly, on religious meaning. More intriguing still, audiences and critics love them.

An American comedy, Lady Bird is the story of one teenage girl’s strained relationship with her mother in her final year at a Catholic high school in California. An American tragedy, Manchester by the Sea tells the story of Lee Chandler – a man who’s suffered more than Job – as he’s given the task of raising his 16-year-old nephew in the aftermath of his brother’s death. Both films were well conceived, crafted and performed. With modest expectations (and budgets), they fared exceptionally well with the punters on the review site Rotten Tomatoes. Manchester by the Sea was nominated for six Oscars; Lady Bird for five.

Manchester by the Sea begins, as it ends, in understatement. Against a backdrop of silence, we see Lee living in Quincy as a solitary janitor: shovelling snow, unclogging toilets, and giving in to random bursts of aggression. Without so much as a change in tone, he learns of his brother’s death.

He then travels to his nephew Patrick’s ice hockey practice in Manchester to deliver the news. He stands at the edge of the ice rink, an ominous grim reaper. Patrick and the coach skate over to him. The camera zooms out. More silence. Death in Manchester, it seems, is as meaningless as life.

But in Manchester, we soon learn, all is not as it seems (spoiler alert). We discover that it is not merely the prospect of parenting a teenager that daunts Lee; it is his return to his old home town. We later find out why. There’s a flashback to a house fire. These scenes are accompanied by Albinoni’s solemn Adagio in G Minor, and are the key to understanding Lee’s character. The fire was his fault: a tragic accident that killed his three children and ended his marriage.

Just as we are beginning to feel thoroughly depressed, things pick up. Indeed if silence in Manchester is a pervasive nihilism, then music is aesthetically, if not overtly, religious. At his brother’s funeral, we see Lee sitting in church as “He Shall Feed His Flock/Come Unto Him All Ye Who Labour” (Isaiah 40:11 and Matthew 11:28) from Handel’s Messiah plays.

To say nothing of the biblical allusions, Lesley Barber’s simple soundtrack pairs well with the flashbacks where Lee and Patrick are fishing together on a boat. The boat, incidentally, becomes a recurring symbol of hope. Both Patrick and Lee begin to heal.

In Manchester, Lee is forced to meet his ex-wife. Although it’s too late to repair their marriage, they reconcile. She tells him “God bless” and asks his forgiveness. Patrick has a similar experience when he goes to visit his mother, a reformed alcoholic. Afterwards, he remarks that his mother’s new husband is a Christian. But Lee reminds Patrick that their family is Catholic, replying: “You know we’re Christian, too.”

In Lady Bird, the closest articulation of a desire for virtue is when Lady Bird’s mother says: “I want you to be the best version of yourself.” In the end, the film’s resolution gives a clear glimpse of what that looks like: sacrifice and gratitude. Similarly, by the end of Manchester, we get the sense that the best version of Patrick exists in relation to Lee.

And so both teenagers come of age not by discovering something within themselves but by realising how they might play a part in something greater. There is brokenness, certainly. But through wisdom and virtue, drawn from (albeit cultural) Catholicism, there is also hope for the future. A curious message from Hollywood. But evidently a resonant one.

Madeleine Kearns is a Scottish journalist based in New York