jackieTragedy. Sorrow. Legacy. Responsibility. These are the ideas woven into Jackie and Manchester by the Sea, two films that tackle perseverance after monumental loss. Jackie is the more artful of the pair, with director Pablo Larrain constructing a non-linear narrative that explores myth, truth and collective heartache. It’s a beautiful portrait about a woman who saw the needs of a society to shoulder its immense burden through poise and surprising foresight. Manchester by the Sea, from writer/director Kenneth Lonergan takes a more ponderous and restrained approach, but is just as impactful. His film immerses us into the small-town lives of broken people who are forced to act, even when they have little or nothing to give. Each of these films’ resonance depends on performances that are haunting and truly unforgettable, with Natalie Portman’s Jackie a powerhouse blend of wit and nuance, while Casey Affleck’s everyman, Lee, is the embodiment of remorse and redemption.

Rather than create another by-the-numbers biopic, director Pablo Larrain constructs Jackie through a labyrinthian narrative, picking up days after the fateful assassination of JFK, as the former First Lady (Natalie Portman) recounts her late husband’s time in office and the moments after his brutal death. The impressionistic approach lends the film mythic scope, as Jackie is determined to combat public perception with what she believes it needs to hear. The results find Larrain and screenwriter Noah Oppenheim taking artistic liberties in a clever way, creating a layered portrait of a powerful woman who maintained her poise while under fire. There’s even a nostalgia here that feels earned, as the film transports us back to a time to when the presidential position and a pride towards the country was palpable. Despite a fiercely intimate perspective, the film doesn’t shy away from larger, social implications.

Eschewing convention at every turn, Larrain’s film is a sensory experience that plunges us deep into his heroine’s mind and the incredible burden she feels. Despite its darkness, Larrain turns Jackie’s charm and blinding resolve into kinetic energy, balancing a playfulness that works in tandem with his genuine sense of reverence. As the titular character, Natalie Portman creates an overwhelming atmosphere of dignity and strength, despite the tremendous pressure beating down on her through all sides – it’s an incredible achievement that makes the film come alive and offers no escape. Through Jackie, we come to realize the importance of hope in times of desperation, with Larrain exploring the subjectivity of truth and the power of legacy. Even with the film’s complex shades of grey, it’s ultimately touching and uplifting, using sorrow to find hope while making keen observations about our political past and present.

manchester_by_the_seaIn Manchester by the Sea, director Kenneth Lonergan’s look at loss and redemption is more straightforward, but rich with truth and thematic poetry that can’t be beat. The story begins with introverted handyman, Lee (Casey Affleck), and his life of solitude. He lives a simple existence, barely tolerating small talk from tenants who make harsh demands of him, and keeping to himself. When his brother suddenly passes away, he’s called back to his childhood town, forcing him to confront a past he’s been running away from, even as he grapples to care for a teenage nephew with whom he’s entrusted.

The best thing about Lonergan’s film is that his characters feel so real. Though the plot is tightly written and presented, Lonergan’s sense of realism makes the entire thing feel spontaneous, allowing his ensemble to truly inhabit the world we see on screen with emotional authenticity. The cast, especially Affleck and Lucas Hedges as his nephew Patrick, are what really sell this, centering everything around a general rapport that feels infectious, and characters that use naturalistic humor to hide deep wounds. With chemistry that is always bursting through the screen, the film is one that delves deep into human frailty and how quickly our world can change for better or worse. Lonergan’s strength is how he celebrates his broken characters, showing us that it’s okay to not know the answers, and that we’ll never have perfect lives no matter how hard we try. There’s a comfort in this truth, and a peace that comes with the idea that all we can do is our best – death is all around, people we love can die at any second, but life goes on if we allow it. This is a film that speaks through silence, measured patience and the unsaid understanding of its beleaguered characters.

While both Jackie and Manchester by the Sea are incredibly sad and harrowing at times, they also aren’t devoid of grace. Each film takes its own route to redemption, exploring our longing for connection and need to find purpose and meaning in the darkest of times. With Jackie, Larrain’s injected new life straight into a stagnant genre, while Lonergan’s Manchester is a reserved work of beauty that speaks in primal terms. There’s overlap between the two, as each film’s characters soldier on after the death of a loved one, but the differences between them are also great reminders of how vast the human experience is, and how each one of us can find strength where we least expect.

SG