How to explore love, loss and hope in the movies without bludgeoning the audience

Three new films feature characters suffering devastating bereavements. The makers of Manchester by the Sea, Arrival and Collateral Beauty talk about how they tackled such a sensitive topic

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 November, 2016, 9:02am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 November, 2016, 9:02am

The death of a close family member is one of the most tragic events imaginable. So how do you make a film with that depth of despair palatable or even entertaining?

Three new movies have a heavy loss at their emotional centres, including alien-landing film Arrival, New England family drama Manchester by the Sea and holiday tearjerker Collateral Beauty. In each case, the death of a loved one leads a character to struggle in moving on with his or her own life.

“It is a risky place to go, because it must be so hard to watch it onscreen,” says film journalist Alicia Malone about using a child’s passing as a plot point. “There’s a great responsibility with doing it right.”

Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester focuses on a Boston handyman (Casey Affleck) who loses his brother (Kyle Chandler) and is named guardian of his nephew (Lucas Hedges), but an instance involving youngsters from the past continues to haunt the family.

What Lonergan’s characters go through is “among the most severe situations I’ve ever written about”, he says, adding that it’s important to be as respectful and truthful as possible.

“It’s including as much of the story as you can, and not only the elements that are unbearable or enjoyable,” says Lonergan. As he worked on the script, he internalised all points of view involved and how each would cope with the trauma. “I actually can’t work too well if I can’t get inside it in some way.”

In Arrival, linguistics professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is unable to deal with having lost her daughter to cancer when she’s tapped to decipher messages from extraterrestrials. The audience sees a full spectrum of emotion with Louise and her child in flashbacks, and that leads to the movie’s statement about choosing love in the face of inevitable heartbreak.

“It’s a powerful card to play with an audience,” says Arrival producer Shawn Levy. So to avoid being manipulative or exploitative, scenes of Louise and her daughter focus on the pain of the survivor. “We show an adolescent girl dying of a disease but minus the ugly details. It’s filled with sadness but it’s almost lyrically presented.”

For Collateral Beauty, Will Smith stars as an advertising executive so crippled by his daughter’s absence that he writes letters to Love, Time and Death to find a reason for living.

The key to keeping it watchable was to find “the light at the end of the tunnel”, says Beauty director David Frankel. “Which isn’t to say you ever get past the grief – once you’ve experienced a loss, that’s a part of your life forever. But people are brought together and loves are discovered. The opportunity to find hope is the strength of a movie that explores loss.”

Amid such serious subject matter, a touch of levity is not only welcome but needed. Frankel says there’s an inherent “screwball element” in how Smith’s character is visited by walking, talking representations of Love, Time and Death who seemingly appear only to him. “Will never lost sight of the fact that there are moments that are meant to be comedic.”

Humour is integral, Lonergan agrees, and “not because it softens what’s serious in the film. Otherwise, it’s just bludgeoning people. It would choke the life out of a story if it was relentless unhappiness.”