In Manchester by the Sea, Lee Chandler loses his brother and is forced to take care of his nephew while attempting to come to terms with a dark event from his own past. In Silver Linings Playbook, Patrick Solitano is forced to cope with the wreckage produced by his mental health issues. Both these stories explore a more realistic view of the world than audiences might otherwise expect from a so-called ‘mainstream’ American film (although neither of them are typical ‘Hollywood’ productions – Silver Linings Playbook is an independent film and Manchester by the Sea hails from Amazon Studios).
Lee Chandler, in Manchester by the Sea, is a property handy-man, an underachiever, imprisoned by his own demons as he struggles to help his nephew make sense of their loss, and not fall off the rails like he did. Patrick Solitano, in Silver Linings Playbook, is coming to terms with a failed marriage and the car-crash that is his life. These are stories of working-class American families facing the realities of a tough world. Stylistically, Manchester by the Sea almost feels like a European film with its tough and unglamorous portrayal of human struggle, with echoes of I, Daniel Blake. Unlike I, Daniel Blake, with its obvious political comment regarding government cutbacks and reduced social care provision, Manchester by the Sea remains a story about individuals and families, without the wider political framework. It also lacks a ‘magical’ element, which is to say an unlikely, upbeat plot element that ‘magically’ turns everything right. Silver Linings Playbook begins as a ‘realistic’ story (in the tradition of The Bicycle Thieves), but it crosses into the buddy movie genre, and then ends up as a Dirty Dancing type dance-off. The unlikely scenario of the dance competition provides a path for hope, for the two protagonists to make sense of their lives, to form a lasting friendship, and for the magic dust of success and achievement to touch them – their success frees them up, allowing them to transcend their predicament. The unexpected arrival of Clarence, the angel, in It’s a Wonderful Life, like the dance competition, provides a way out for the central characters. Only by endorsing a sense of hope and believing in themselves can they move on. In some ways, Tiffany Maxwell is Patrick Solitano’s angel and he is hers.
It’s the change in tone, from downbeat to upbeat, that marks Silver Linings Playbook out from Manchester by the Sea. Whereas Manchester by the Sea is a grim reminder of the darker side of life (a stark warning), Silver Linings Playbook celebrates our ability to transcend challenges, and the liberation offered by self-reinvention. It’s a much more dynamic and optimistic message. In comparison, Lee Chandler in Manchester by the Sea feels damned: unable to overcome the past, locked into the eternal quagmire of a tragic predestination.
Both stories are deeply moving in their own ways, but the crowd-pleasing optimism of Silver Linings Playbook offers a more satisfying audience outcome. It’s a story that presents a more appealing world view, one where tragic failure can be transformed into glorious success through our own efforts – and the luck of finding a good dance partner.