A few days before Christmas this past year, my mom and I went to see Manchester by the Sea, the much-lauded Amazon Studios film helmed by Kenneth Lonergan, which stars Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, and Lucas Hedges. It is a highly emotional film, and it’s difficult not to have a similarly emotional reaction to the content. There’s some heart-stomping moments, some heart-shredding moments, some heart-bulldozing moments. I won’t go into spoilers, but you can probably tell from the reviews and the buzz surrounding the film that it isn’t a happy-go-lucky comedy focusing on the bright side of life; it’s a real, raw film that doesn’t show an idealized interpretation of the world.
That night at the theater, I was not the only one who found the film to be soul-wrenching. When it was done, and the credits started rolling, the sobbing woman beside me managed to say, “I don’t understand. The reviews said it was a good movie. I don’t get it,” and the man she was with said, “Yeah… I like to see movies with happy endings.”
Now, I freely admit that I am a film snob. However, I understand their perspective, even if I don’t completely agree. I can understand why certain folks don’t necessarily want to subject themselves to a sobfest for 2+ hours – I’m not gonna turn into Russel Crowe in Gladiator and scream, “ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?!?” at people who don’t enjoy sitting through what are considered “depressing” films.
I mean, I love the Marvel movies and films of similar genres, but if I went to see a superhero film where the villains emerge victorious, the heroes lose, and the world subsequently suffers some horrendous fate, I’d probably have a few complaints. Because that’s not why I go to those types of films; I go to see the heroes triumph, despite the obstacles they endure along the way. There are exceptions to this (Watchmen comes to mind) but usually, if I’m looking for an “escape” from reality, it’s easy to peg which movies will provide that experience. Like, if I’m hunting for a film to lift my mood, and my options are Brokeback Mountain and Airplane! the choice is clear.
Certain films are designed with the escapist in mind; the moviegoers who yearn for the fantasy, for the formula that produces a happy ending without fail, for the victories of heroes and the vanquishing of evil. I don’t go into Disney movies expecting to emerge from the theater at the end weeping because all of the little woodland creatures were murdered in some grisly fashion, or the prince left the princess for her devious step-sister. Lots of movies have “sad” moments, or emotional hurdles for the protagonists to conquer, but those obstacles are typically stepping stones on the road to “happily ever after.” And there’s nothing wrong with that; it works, for some films.
But when it comes to film in general, happy does not necessarily mean good, and “sad” does not automatically equate with bad. This applies to books and television shows, too, but I’m limiting the scope for the sake of time.
Manchester by the Sea is not a happy movie, but I still found it to be great – and one of my favorites of the year. Because sometimes, it isn’t an escape I’m looking for; it’s a more grounded, real experience. I can’t imagine that particular film having a standard by-the-book happy ending. It wouldn’t work. I’d also say something similar for Moonlight, which I saw this past week. I wouldn’t necessarily call film “sad,” but it’s not a romp through the daisies – and the more realistic content and approach gives the film a stronger impact. It gives the viewer a tether to hold onto; situations to empathize and sympathize with. Some films, while fictional, strive for a more realistic adaptation of life or events instead of showing a world where everything goes right all the time. Because if there’s one thing I know about the world we live in, it’s that things most certainly don’t always go “right.”
Some of the most notable films of all time are “sad” movies, or movies that don’t follow the “typical” plot structure of “set up, conflict, stuff goes awry, climax, everything works out”- and sometimes, that’s what makes them notable. For example, Schindler’s List is a brilliant film and it packs an emotional wallop. I watched it almost a decade ago for the first (and, thus far, only) time and can still vividly remember the ending scene. Dead Poet’s Society ripped my heartstrings to shreds and it’s one of my favorites. I still can’t watch the Wilson scene in Castaway without getting sniffly. The first ten minutes of Up, the last ten minutes of Toy Story 3, and almost the entirety of Grave of the Fireflies had me absolutely blubbering. Seven had me in jaw-dropped shock long after the screen went black. The Road was exhausting, and last year, Leonardo DiCaprio’s journey through bears, snow, and wilderness in The Revenant left me feeling emotionally and physically drained. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest won Best Picture in 1975, and certainly not for the laughs. And yet, movies like that can linger; their messages resonating long after their initial release.
Movies can provide an escape, but they can also be a mirror; a portal through which we see a fictional world not too different from our own. They can provide heartbreaking moments and emulate emotions that a viewer can latch onto or relate to, instead of distracting from them. The message or mood of a film might be bleak, or depressing, or somber, or just outright discouraging or dismal, or hope might be but a pinprick in the distance for characters the viewers have grown attached to, but that does not devalue the film overall.
Just like there is great importance in happiness and positive, uplifting messages, there is immense value in emotions like sorrow. Films can help us learn, or allow viewers to confront and process difficult, stressful, and painful emotions through a fictional lens. Sometimes, it isn’t about the escape, but the journey – even if that journey has no light at the end of the tunnel.
(As an aside, I intended to write a review for Moonlight for this post, but during my showing, there were two obnoxious women seated behind me who felt the need to fill every silent or poignant moment in the film with their commentary and inappropriate jokes (especially during romantic scenes, which they seemed to disapprove of), and so, my experience was somewhat marred, and I didn’t want that negativity to seep into a review – especially since my focus was broken at a few key points. But I will say that, despite their rudeness, it was a remarkable film with incredible performances from the cast, and I hope to see it succeed at the Oscars. And as a general PSA for moviegoers: shut up and watch the movie. Don’t ruin the experience for the others around you.)