I loved Manchester by the Sea.

It was not colorful, fast, bright, and flashy like La La Land. It was quite the opposite. This movie was somber and gray, which is the tone that its name conveys. The story line builds in a quiet, subtle way, with a few humorous moments. We first get a long glimpse into Lee Chandler’s mundane life as a janitor at an apartment complex in Boston. And then he gets the call that his brother Joe has died, and he has to return to Manchester-by-the-Sea, a Massachusetts town which he fled years ago. He finds out that Joe appointed him trustee over Joe’s 16-year-old son, Patrick, whom he hasn’t seen in a long time.

[SPOILER ALERT]

The typical plot would then show Lee valiantly struggling to be Patrick’s guardian and resettling in Manchester-by-the-Sea. And then after hitting some bumps in the road, he would be able to thrive at parenting Patrick and to truly rise to the challenge. And at the same time, Lee would reconcile and reunite with his ex-wife. That’s the Hollywood ending.

The actual story line soberly mimics life. Lee does make a heroic effort to take responsibility of Patrick–that part is the same as the “typical” story. But Lee isn’t able to prevail over his grief and his past. His emotions continue to overwhelm him and he is still prone to starting fist fights in bars because the pain is so hard to deal with. Being back in Manchester-by-the-Sea is too traumatic and triggering. He has to humbly admit defeat and recognize the limitations of his broken heart. He returns to another janitorial job in Boston. Family friends adopt Patrick instead so that he can remain in Manchester-by-the-Sea.

However, by the end, Lee and Patrick have re-established their relationship. Lee’s heart, still broken, has healed enough to maintain and commit to this one relationship. This is realistic healing. He figuratively went from 0 to 10 mph, even though in an ideal world, we’d like him to go from 0 to 60.

Baby steps, as Bill Murray says. Baby steps.

Endings like this may not be “inspiring” or “uplifting” or “redemptive” in a way that hits you in the teeth. But it sets reasonable expectations and opens the door to hope. We promote and publicize stories with amazing happy endings, but at the same time, we often compare our own stories and are secretly disappointed in our lack of progress, because the changes aren’t immediately obvious, dramatic, or newsworthy. Change is often quiet and subtle, like Manchester by the Sea. Lee Chandler is an extremely flawed and fallen protagonist (“protagonist” is perhaps too strong a label to describe him), but there’s hope for him yet. And hope for us all.

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