Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea are already slated to be two of the year’s most heralded films. It is of note that they both feature male protagonists - Moonlight’s lead, Chiron and Manchester by the Sea’s Lee - who despite being born into utterly different circumstances, are equally silenced by their grief. Directors Barry Jenkins and Kevin Lonergan put modern masculinity to the test by exposing just how fragile it is.
Barry Jenkins’ childhood coincidently mirrors that of the film’s protagonist, Chiron. Both producer and protagonist were raised in the projects of Miami, by addicted, single mothers but under the wing of local drug dealers. Chiron’s stand-in father, sweetened thug Juan, finds Chiron hiding from local bullies in an abandoned crack den and keeps him until he finally speaks. From then on, Juan becomes Chiron’s voice and his model of masculinity. He is also the first person to tell Chiron why his silence is dangerous. When Juan teaches Chiron to swim for the first time, he enforces that “at some point, you gotta decide for yourself who you're going to be. Can't let nobody make that decision for you.”
Chiron has decided. He is gay, an unwanted exception when hardened masculinity is crucial. He is the target for the boys he has grown up with, especially during bored afternoons playing “Knocked Down, Stay Down”. Chiron, referred to as “Little” by his peers, has no interest and Kevin, the only boy Chiron could call a friend, takes his silence as a challenge. He pushes Chiron to prove he can be tough and a man by fighting back instead of being repeatedly beaten on. The two boys play the game separately from the group. The scene is intimate and foreshadows a budding romance but what is most apparent is youth edged with a strength neither Chiron, Kevin nor the scrappier kids yet know is within them. Their ability to navigate the pack, to throw punches, kick and if necessary, outrun defines their ability to defend themselves and grow a year older in their neighborhood. And for Chiron winning one game over Kevin enforces that instead of words, violence and anger translate equally as well.
In the face of Miami’s urban sprawl, Manchester by the Sea is a small, seaside town whose local economy is kept afloat by the Atlantic Ocean. New England is known for its stoicism and their men are notorious for being of few words. Lee and his deceased brother, Joe are not without love, they were just raised where fierce loyalty replaces affection. In one of the film’s early scenes, when Lee moves out of Joe’s house post-tragedy, the embrace exchanged between the brothers is awkward. Joe grasps for something to say which feels impossible to the audience - Lee is emotionally and mentally hanging on by a thread. Instead, Joe is more focused on getting his son, Patrick, to say goodbye to his uncle and is visibly agitated until Patrick bounds out of the house and up to Lee’s moving car. Patrick’s youth and clear eyes make him the translator for his emotionally handicapped father and uncle. He is their buffer and their bridge.
Years later, Joe is gone and Lee’s relationship with his nephew is as tenuous as his mental state. Back for Patrick’s junior year of high school and set up to be his legal guardian, Lee struggles to communicate with Patrick who is now a young man himself and only getting older. Patrick loves a place that propels Lee to punch through windows, wander aimlessly because no one will give him a job, drink, fight and finally, surrender.
“Are you just gonna disappear?” Seated around the dinner table the night before Joe’s funeral, Lee and Patrick’s vulnerability is almost suffocating, especially when Lee quietly concedes, saying, “I can't do it, Patty. I can't beat it. I can't beat it” and announces he is leaving Manchester. It is the most he has said to his nephew the entire time they have lived under the same roof, each nursing their own private grief. Lee’s words are his personal truth and his apology to Patrick for not being the man he wants to be but the man he accepts he is.
If silence is self-inflicted, it is often a means for restraint. Chiron and Lee are men from different walks of life who have both experienced severe loss. Their silence signals a perceived lack of control over their lives. They are the anti-masculine protagonist, emotionally warped and unbearably delicate. When the viewer recognizes this, that Chiron and Lee are shells of men kept alive by singular moments, like floating in the ocean for the first time or telling the truth, the words they speak break you open.