In “Manchester by the Sea,” a film that is largely about grief and the gradual recovery from it, Michelle Williams’ character Randi Chandler explains how she feels after the tragic death of her children. A few years after watching them burn in a house fire set accidentally by her husband, Randi says, “My heart is broken and it’s always going to be broken.”
It’s a simple statement, but one that sums up a thematic trend in Hollywood right now. Several filmmakers, including “Manchester by the Sea’s” writer-director Kenneth Lonergan, have centered on the loss of a child, which is arguably one of the darkest subjects available to a storyteller.
Lonergan’s film is one of several about this unthinkable tragedy, a topic that Hollywood has historically dealt with only sporadically. Over the past few months a few such movies have emerged, including “Manchester by the Sea,” “Arrival” and “Collateral Beauty.” Each film builds much of its central narrative around a child’s death and how that loss affects a parent. They are all about how the parent copes following the loss, rather than the loss itself, and offer various insights about what happens to someone when they are left behind alive.
“It seems to be the season for these movies,” says David Frankel, director of “Collateral Beauty,” a film about a man named Howard (Will Smith) who pens letters to the personified concepts of death, love and time after his daughter passes away from cancer. “The loss of a child is so devastating and so irreparable. I’ve seen the devastation and grief it can bring to people and how hard it is to emerge from that cloud and why it’s such a struggle. You see how the death of a child wrecks the marriages and leaves people feeling isolated and lonely and unable to connect. In the end, this movie advocates for connection.”
Hollywood has historically touched on the sort of grief that the loss of a child brings, but it’s not necessarily a subject matter that pervades the big screen. Many films, including the recent “A Monster Calls,” focus on the death of a parent, which can have similar tones, but to find several movies so close together centered on children passing is unusual. John Cameron Mitchell’s “Rabbit Hole,” Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s “21 Grams,” Robert Redford’s “Ordinary People” and Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “Three Colors: Blue” exemplify past Hollywood dramas on the topic. All are notably dark, forcing the characters to face grief head on. “Arrival” handles that grief differently, ultimately arguing that there is a humanity in sadness.
The film, based on Ted Chiang’s 1998 short story “Story of Your Life,” opens with a montage that unspools the birth, childhood and death of the protagonist’s daughter. In the first five minutes you watch as Louise Banks (Amy Adams) engages with her daughter over the course of her childhood and then sees her die from cancer. It’s instantly heartbreaking, but it becomes even more so over the course of the film as you realize that the past, present and future are all malleable in the hands of director Denis Villenueve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer.
“What compelled me to write it was the way it made me feel: Both heartbroken and uplifted at the end, with a head full of ideas,” says Heisserer. “I was desperate to share that with a wider audience. I admired how Ted’s story reinforced the Tennyson quote, ‘’Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.’ As a people we get so caught up in the milestones of birth and death, but it’s the moments in between that have the most value. Louise understands this. And I aspire to be like her in that regard.”
For Villeneuve, childhood is connected to nature. There are purposefully many shots in “Arrival” of Louise’s daughter Hannah in the woods or engaging with wildlife throughout the movie. “Cynicism is growing and our hope for the future is narrowing down,” the director notes. “We seem to be more and more disconnected with nature. That, I think, in the movie is linked to seeing the death of innocence. There’s something strong there that artists are exploring in different ways. It’s very, very dark subject matter. It’s always striking to see these trends.”
Villeneuve sees “Arrival” as less about grief and more about the sense of rebirth that comes with loss. It asks the viewer to find warmth in the darkness, which is something that “Collateral Beauty” also focuses on. Both films are about the idea that with death there can come something else. Loss can help you see the world in a new way.
“[The movie] tells us that we must not be afraid of death and embrace it in order to be really able to embrace life,” Villeneuve says. “For me, it’s a lesson of humility, to be closer to our own condition and our own nature. [Louise] will be more open to the tragedy and the beauty of life. It’s an antidote to cynicism.”
Allen Loeb, who wrote “Collateral Beauty” after several years of toying with the concept and being unable to shake the idea, could have set the story around various types of loss. But, for him, the death of a child is the worst thing someone can endure.
“I needed the character [of Howard] to be really, really wounded,” Loeb says. “And, of course, it could have been losing a spouse or a few other things. But I really went all the way with what I consider personally to be the largest vulnerability we all have in this world: Losing a child.”
All these films, including “A Monster Calls,” which centers on a child learning to channel his sadness as his mother dies of cancer, look for the light that comes after the darkness. They all ask: What can we gain from the loss?
Heisserer, for instance, wants “Arrival’s” viewers to remember that sadness comes because we felt a real bond with another person and now something palpable is missing from the world. “It reminds us that grief and loss affect us so deeply because we chose to connect with someone just as deeply,” the writer notes. “Despite the pain, it’s a good sign. And when we think of that loss, it’s noble to also think of the contributions that person gave us. Their presence in the world. Their echoes and footprints.”
These films may also offer a metaphor to contemporary life, depending on how you read them. “The loss of a child is a loss of innocence, of idealism,” Heisserer adds. “Squandered potential, too. These themes may be a mirror of filmmakers’ feelings and worries about the state of the world. We grew up hoping that good prevails over evil. I think we’ve all had to deal with the death of our inner child in recent years.”