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Why Hollywood is ready for subtle storytelling at last. Part 2: MANCHESTER BY THE SEA’s complex Protagonist

Why Hollywood is ready for subtle storytelling at last. Part 2: MANCHESTER BY THE SEA’s complex Protagonist

We delve into what MANCHESTER BY THE SEA storytelling and narrative techniques were implemented to make this film a subtle success.

Spoilers alert… this article will discuss the outcomes of the story in order to demonstrate how and why it works.

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA tells the story of a withdrawn and passive protagonist, Lee Chandler, portrayed by Casey Affleck. The writer/director Kenneth Lonergan deliberately creates a narrative in which the protagonist resists positive growth and development. This is an important rejection on mainstream Hollywood storytelling gurus, who emphasize that change in the protagonist needs to be the driving force of the narrative – that the protagonist must strive towards a personal goal to earn our empathy as an audience. But it certainly isn’t, in the Manchester by the Sea storytelling!

In fact, this protagonist is so set against positive growth, that when presented with attractive women hitting on him, he doesn’t even acknowledge their advances, and starts fights with random guys instead at whatever bar he’s getting drunk at. It’s hard to imagine a writer rejecting the mantra of ‘positive character growth’ more vividly. The driving force of the story is Lee unwillingly forced to become a father figure again, when his brother dies and he is made custodian for his nephew. Normally, this would form the platform for a feel-good movie. Not here – Lee never willingly ‘accepts the call to action’, however many opportunities the story gives him.

It is a long time before the audience is given a reason for why Lee has become so averse to happiness and positive growth. We learn that he (accidentally) started a fire which killed his children. We even see his estranged wife moving on – she is now pregnant to her new partner. At the climax, she even tries to help Lee move on, but his decision is expressed by the line “I can’t beat it.”

Lee lets his demons, guilt and rage at himself consume him. The nearest thing we get to personal and positive progress is his final decision to move away from his nephew again, but this time to get a sofa-bed in his new apartment, so that his nephew can visit sometimes. A feel-good movie would have played out this story arc in a completely different way, and would have provided many more notable plot developments along the way to force and test his progress.

In conventional stories about men accepting forms of custody over children – such as THREE MEN AND A BABY or ABOUT A BOY (or even the upcoming adaptation of Stephen King book, THE DARK TOWER film), the presence of a child and unexpected custodianship creates a catalyst for transforming a progressive character into an empathetic protagonist. Lee, in a similar scenario, never adjusts to it and fails to find his own catalyst for personal growth – the sort of plot convention that we would normally expect to find in a screen telling of a story like this.

The subtlety of storytelling carries this film. Whereas Affleck’s performance as Lee is praised for portraying seething rage below his character’s actions, in practical terms all of these behaviors are mostly shown implicitly not explicitly. And they are played out in unexpected scenarios, rather than directly confronting issue head on like conventional stories would do.

Acclaim for MANCHESTER & criticism from some audiences against it are two sides of same coin – mainstream audience members may find this film slow and actionless compared to what they are used to, but these are the same qualities that critics and the Academy have been keen to back. Cinema has been dominated by so much heavy-handed, on-the-nose storytelling, for example in the endless succession of superhero movies, that it has left critics and pros hungry for a new, realistic, refreshing approach to storytelling, and that is something MANCHESTER BY THE SEA provides.

Next up – The ARRIVAL of subtlety in sci-fi!

 

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© WriteMovies 2017

Example Studio Consulting: MOONLIGHT Script

Example Studio Consulting: MOONLIGHT Script

An example script consultancy on a reading of MOONLIGHT script, winner of Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay at the 2017 Oscars.

“This screenplay is beautifully written, the central theme elegantly expressed in an almost poetic style…” Extracts from a script report by our trainee Edward Smith, based on a reading of the MOONLIGHT script: CLICK HERE to read the script online from Simply Scripts.

This example report was completed by Edward Smith as part of his internship with us, which has recently been successfully completed.

 To see the full industry-standard format we use for Studio Coverage, either commission your own (CLICK HERE) based on the script you submit, or purchase The Confidential Studio Manual to get the inside track on how the industry will really assess and process your script (CLICK HERE)!

WRITEMOVIES STORY DEPARTMENT COVERAGE

 

TITLE: MOONLIGHT                                    LOCALE: Miami, Atlanta

AUTHOR: Barry Jenkins                             SETTING: Urban U.S.

PERIOD: Present                                            FORM: SP

PRODUCER: N/A                                          BUDGET: Low

SYNOPSIS

This screenplay is divided into three chapters, each focusing on a different stage of the protagonist’s life and titled after the name he is currently using; in the first part, aged twelve, he goes by the name LITTLE. Chased by a gang of bullies, he takes refuge in an abandoned crackhouse, where he is found by the drug dealer, JUAN. Little spends the night with Juan and his girlfriend, TERESA, and starts to become close to them because his own mother, PAULA, is neglectful of him.

When Juan discovers Paula doing drugs, they argue about raising Little, with Paula implying that he is gay. That night, having been confronted by Paula, Little goes to speak to Juan, asking him what the word “faggot” means and whether he is himself gay. Juan reassures him, but is then forced to admit, to his shame, that he is a drug dealer and that he has sold Paula drugs.

In the second chapter, the protagonist, now sixteen-years-old, goes by his real name, CHIRON. In the intervening years, Juan has died and Paula has become even more abusive, but Chiron still regularly visits Teresa. He is now struggling with his attraction to his friend, KEVIN, while also still coping with bullies – particularly his classmate, TERRELL…

COMMENTS:

This screenplay is beautifully written, the central theme elegantly expressed in an almost poetic style. It deals with an oft-overlooked issue, studying what it is like to be a gay black man, charting the struggles the protagonist faces in establishing his own identity in a culture that is hostile to his sexuality; this is dealt with both delicately and realistically thanks to the high quality of the writing…

By portraying three distinct stages of Chiron’s life, we are able to see the intricacies of his situation and better understand how he develops as a character. He is forced to change because of the physical and emotional abuse he suffers, with very few nurturing figures to help him. From being a gentle, vulnerable child, he violently lashes out against his bullies and eventually reinvents himself as a drug dealer to hide who he truly is. In the end, he is only able to come to terms with his sexuality because of Kevin’s influence, bringing him full circle back to his true self after all the challenges he has faced.

Each chapter also has its own, miniature three act structure. For example, the first chapter has an inciting incident when Little meets Juan; the first act sees them become attached to one another, the second develops their relationship, and the third deals with the conversation between them when Little asks about being gay. Similarly, the other two chapters also have a three act structure, allowing each one to stand on its own as an independent story – albeit strengthened and given context by the others.

 To see the full industry-standard format we use for Studio Coverage, either commission your own (CLICK HERE) based on the script you submit, or purchase The Confidential Studio Manual to get the inside track on how the industry will really assess and process your script (CLICK HERE)!