Todd VanDerWerff is at the Toronto International Film Festival, where many of the movies that will dominate our upcoming conversations and the awards season are playing. He will be filing daily dispatches on the films he sees there through next week. For more information on TIFF and the film festival circuit, read our explainer.
Since it debuted at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, I’ve had the same conversation about Kenneth Lonergan’s masterful new film Manchester by the Sea several times.
It goes a little like this. The person who’s just seen the film stumbles out of the screening, staring at a friend with haunted eyes. "That’s the best movie I’ve seen in ages," they say, before pausing for a moment, blinking. "And it was about sad white people." Then they laugh, slightly amazed. And, indeed, its story of one man’s attempts to put his life back together in the wake of his brother’s death hits all the Sad White People buttons.
I say this not to imply that movies about sad white people are inherently terrible or anything like that. Indeed, some of the very best American films — including the granddaddy of them all, Citizen Kane — are fundamentally about trying to solve the aching emptiness at the center of some white guy’s soul. (It’s occasionally a white woman — especially on TV — but very rarely a person of color.)
But this space is so well-trod at this point that it’s hard to believe anybody can come up with new ways to tell such a familiar story. Usually, a white guy with enough of a financial cushion to contemplate his inner life realizes just how empty it is. (He probably lives somewhere in the Northeast.)
He tries to fill the void with other things but continually fails. The thought keeps gnawing at him, until he returns to some sort of foundational trauma that made him who he is. With the help of others, he moves past the trauma and has a chance at something new — not necessarily better, but new.
What’s remarkable about Manchester, which will be released on November 18, is how it subverts many of those tropes, especially in its beautifully bruised ending. But it can’t avoid all of them. The Sad White Person Movie will be with us forever, it would seem. But why?
Contemplating your sadness is fundamentally privileged
One thing that’s interesting to me is just how rigidly this basic structure seems to adhere to white men, particularly in film. Now, a lot of that stems from how reticent the film industry is to diversify in general, but the Sad White Person Movie is particularly set in its ways.
Rightly or wrongly, some of this is because of a stereotype Americans tend to have about white men: They’re bottled up and unfeeling, scared of their own emotions.
The Sad White Person Movie plays off this idea we have about how white men operate, in order to interrogate how central that lack of expressed emotion is to our ideals of masculinity. (I should briefly pause to note that this character type is heavily influenced by literature, particularly writers like John Updike and John Cheever.)
Consider what may be the quintessential Sad White Person movie: Good Will Hunting (which ticks off just about every trope listed above and co-stars Manchester’s Casey Affleck). The central tension of that movie is whether Will Hunting (Matt Damon) can learn to embrace his emotions in time to realize his potential and maybe even get the girl. He gets there with the help of a therapist, but at every turn we’re reminded that Will grew up in a blue-collar culture that doesn’t embrace men who feel things.
Yet even this stereotype doesn’t explain the rigidity of the Sad White Person Movie. There are, after all, women and people of color who are uncomfortable with their emotions, or who have bottled up their pain in favor of moving through life like seemingly emotionless sharks. This is not a personality trait exclusive to any race, gender, or creed.
On the other hand, having the time to really stew in one’s sadness and ruminate on its root causes often is something that comes from having a certain degree of privilege.
The characters in Manchester by the Sea, for instance, are working-class folks, and buying a new boat motor is a major plot point in the film. But they’re not worried about making rent, or where their next meal will come from. They’re not worried about police violence or having to go to war or getting paid less for doing the same job as someone else. They’re not incredibly privileged, but they have enough privilege to spend time examining their own interiors at length.
Thus, the Sad White Person Movie so often embraces white dudes because it needs to decrease the external stakes — the things in the character’s outside world that keep him from getting where he needs to go — as much as possible in order to heighten the internal stakes. In the Sad White Person Movie, the most credible opposition always has to be the self, and in a fictional setting, it’s just easier for people to destroy themselves if they have a modicum of privilege.
The Sad White Person Movie works because it’s fundamentally redemptive
The sneaky thing about movies like this is that they’re basically bullshit.
Let’s return, again, to Good Will Hunting. In that movie, Will’s childhood trauma (he was abused) is essentially cured by his therapist telling him, over and over, that it’s not his fault. In real life, this might be a good breakthrough in therapy. But in a movie, it needs to be the solution.
The Sad White Person Movie also always, always says there’s a cause for the sadness, that it can be traced back to something in the character’s past where his life turned sour. Think of the accident in Ordinary People, or "Rosebud" in Kane.
Even Manchester by the Sea, which works diligently to defy the idea that trauma can be overcome simply (about which more in a bit), has to have a backstory that explains the protagonist’s sadness.
This, of course, is not how clinical depression works. We know that. Depression is a horrifying creature that manifests itself early in a person’s life and refuses to let him go. It can be medicated and treated with therapy. But it’s not going to be solved, and it’s not going to be traced back to a key moment in a person’s life.
But that also explains the Sad White Person Movie’s power. All of us, regardless of our background, have struggled with moments when we’re cripplingly sad. We’ve dealt with others in our lives who can’t seem to shake that sadness. The Sad White Person Movie suggests that sadness will lift, eventually, if we do the work.
This is, in many ways, as simplistic a redemption narrative as something like Rocky: You just need to take your time and figure it out, and you, too, can beat depression, situational or otherwise.
The movies need this sort of escapism, of course, but the Sad White Person Movie is so often treated as a story that explores some darker corner of human existence — and it rarely is.
And ultimately, Manchester by the Sea succeeds because it subverts as many of these tropes as it can.
Fortunately, Manchester by the Sea is an exception
As mentioned, Manchester doesn’t avoid all tropes. In particular, it leans heavily on the mysterious catastrophe as an explanation for why Lee has become isolated from everyone he knows and loves.
But, I should stress, the use of backstory works, and works brilliantly. Lee (Casey Affleck) walks through the film seeming like he might get into a fight with anybody who talks to him, and by the time the film reveals why he is the way he is (like many Sad White Person Movies, Manchester by the Sea is something of an emotional mystery), you’re more than ready for the cataclysm.
Manchester has several advantages that less successful Sad White Person Movies don’t. For one thing, it’s written and directed by Lonergan, whose sprawling Margaret (a symbolic retelling of America’s reaction to 9/11 through the eyes of a teenage girl) remains one of my two or three favorite movies of the decade.
Here, his beautifully structured screenplay is complemented perfectly by wide shots that capture the emotional distance his characters feel from each other — until they have a moment of minor catharsis and he cuts in for a close-up.
But the movie also wouldn’t work without Affleck, who manages to turn the simple act of putting his hands in his pockets into an act of aggression. (Pay attention to when he does it throughout the film.)
The movie follows Lee as he returns home to the little Massachusetts town where he spent much of his life to bury his brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), who’s died of a heart condition. To his surprise, Joe’s will stipulates that Lee become the guardian of Joe’s teenage son — which will require Lee moving back to the town that harbors so much pain for him. Affleck is perfect in this part, a walking wound who’d rather roll around in salt than ask for so much as a Band-Aid.
Lonergan smartly structures the story so that as Lee is figuring out, say, how to deal with some of the stipulations in Joe’s will in the present, flashbacks simultaneously build tension. Slowly, you realize that certain things about the past are no longer true of the present, and wait for the other shoe to drop, for the "answer" that explains why Lee is so closed off. (And when it does, it’s one of the scenes of the year.)
But what Manchester by the Sea understands above all else is that trauma is at once something you don’t get over and something you cannot wallow in. Lee is constantly confronted with people from his past who have found ways to coexist with past tragedies both large and small. There are people reaching out to him at every turn. When he doesn’t reach back, it’s treated not as a failure on his part but as something regrettably understandable.
Sadness isn’t a monster you can kill. Depression isn’t a beast to shrug off your back. But neither has to define your life, either. Lots of movies miss this. Manchester by the Sea doesn’t, and that’s what makes it one of the best movies of the year — and a necessary corrective to so many less considered Sad White Person Movies of the past.
Manchester by the Sea opens in limited release on Friday, November 18.