It’s awards season, in the world of film. While I don’t hold any professional film critic credentials, I do find myself at this time of year trying to see at least a few of the films that receive a lot of awards buzz. I am fortunate, that though I live in an area that is likely considered by most metrics to be in the “middle of nowhere,” Waterville is blessed with a wonderful independent movie theater. With little effort, I have access to most, if not all, of the big awards contenders that often don’t make it (unless and/or until they win a big award) to the local movieplex.
A couple of weeks ago, I saw La La Land, a lovely film to see with a big group of friends, which is exactly what my husband and I did recently—and then sliding over to the Mexican restaurant next door to discuss the film over margaritas.
The films that I’m especially thinking about in this season are Moonlight and Manchester By the Sea—two more films receiving a lot of awards buzz, both nominated in the Best Film category for the Academy Awards. These films have reminded me of the power of film to invite the viewer into a story, and especially into a place, circumstance, situation that is sometimes familiar, and sometimes completely foreign and strange.
Both Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea are films of amazing power. Each, in its own way, is sad, provocative, moving, and thoughtful. These films offer two very different, yet at the same time very similar, stories. One film felt very familiar to me. The other, completely mysterious.
I grew up not far from Manchester-by-the-Sea, the town whose name offers the title to the film. That distinctive Massachusetts accent is not just something to make fun of. It’s a part of my life. The intersection of grief, isolation, hostility, familial bonds, and wry humor are also very familiar to me. Growing up in Massachusetts and working there as a young adult, I knew those people. I even knew people who had experienced profound loss, and responded in much the same way as Lee Chandler in the film.
While Manchester by the Sea was haunting, moving and familiar, Moonlight was haunting and moving, but altogether strange and unknown. And, therefore, just as important to see and experience.
Moonlight introduced me to the life of one young man, growing up in a poverty stricken part of Miami with a drug-addicted mother. Like Manchester, the tale has a lot to do with a man who lives a very contained life, with a diligently drawn box in which to protect and preserve himself. In Moonlight, Chiron tries to protect himself from the likely hostile responses as he becomes increasingly aware of his homosexuality. In Manchester, Lee tries to protect himself from memory and feeling.
Both films share a story about the complications of surrogacy. No neat and warm Hallmark moments. Instead, there is on full display the complicated nature of our human relationships. In Manchester, Lee is asked to serve as guardian of his nephew after the death of Lee’s brother. But, serving as guardian means moving back to the town that will tear down all of those carefully drawn walls, a town that reminds him at every turn of his unspeakable loss. In Moonlight, Chiron as a boy is looked after by a seemingly kind and gentle man, who just so happens to be the source of the drugs that take hold of his mother and, in other aspects of the man’s life, is not at all kind or gentle. One of the most wondrous of film scenes that I’ve seen in a long time shows Chiron being taught to swim by this father figure, the only man who seems not only to hold such a place, but the only man who appears to want such a place in young Chiron’s life.
These films offer an invitation to delve into the messiness of life, including haunting and difficult tragedies. There is also the opportunity to explore and consider empathy for people whose lives are very different than the life of the viewer.
As a Christian, I find these films to be especially significant. Jesus taught over and over again the importance of being neighbor, especially to and for those we may be quick to judge and keep at a distance. The Gospels offer a number of stories that characterize Jesus as being moved by the plight of the people before him, people who were often very different.
Films can take us out of our lives for a short time, and allow us to be carried far away from ourselves—sometimes into a fantasy world. But, films can also provide crucial context for the lives we live, helping us understand and consider people whose lives are very different. Films can help us explore and exercise our empathy.
In times such as these, opportunities for empathy seem even more significant. When it feels like we human beings, especially in the United States, live and gather in communities of deepening sameness, when treating neighbors with respect is not difficult, films can provide an opportunity to see and begin to understand those in very different communities, in very different contexts, with very different experiences.
Jesus didn’t call his followers to do what is easy, but to engage in what is difficult. Films may not solve all of the world’s problems, but some of them offer invitations to travel to completely unknown places to discover something that is completely familiar, in our shared humanity. We could do with a whole lot more of that.