Lion and Manchester by the Sea: Different Stories, Same Message

Lucie Turkel, Editor-in-Chief


Lion and Manchester by the Sea are two Oscar-nominated films that deal with the difficult and volatile emotions of loss and trauma in distinctly different ways. Lion, directed by Garth Davis, follows the story of Saroo, a young boy living in a small town in India who gets separated from his family. After a strenuous journey, he is adopted by a kind Australian couple. Twenty five years later, Saroo, now a young adult, sets out to find his long-lost family in India. Manchester by the Sea, directed by Kenneth Lonergan, tracks the story of Lee Chandler, a wayward handyman from Boston who must take care of his nephew after the death of the boy’s father.

Manchester by the Sea is a movie steeped in realism; the story of Lion is miraculous and nearly fantastical. What’s ironic is that Lion is based on a true story, whereas Manchester is not. Lion opens up with an exchange between five-year-old Saroo and his older brother, Guddu. Despite his destitute living conditions that are established at the beginning of the film, it’s clear that Saroo is surrounded by love: from his mother, who allows her children to eat her small portion of food; from his younger sister, who looks up to him; and mainly from his older brother, who acts as both a role model and a best friend for Saroo.


When Saroo accidentally gets on a train that carries him far from his hometown and family, the viewer watches as the love that initially flowed around him begins to trickle and then runs completely dry. While before Saroo was surrounded by his loving family, he’s now surrounded by indifferent strangers and brutal policemen; adults ruthlessly push the five-year-old out of the way when he clogs up traffic at a train station and could care less that the child is starving and sleeping on the streets. The one person who seems to have compassion for Saroo, a woman named Noor who sees Saroo on a street corner and takes him back to her apartment, ends up having an ulterior motive: she wants to sell him into a child trafficking ring. Such cruel treatment of a young, helpless child automatically makes the audience sympathize with Saroo; the trauma that the young boy is experiencing is palpable and painful even to watch, especially when compared to the immense love of his lost family.

As one can deduce, the beginning of Lion is extremely overwhelming, disorienting, and emotional, reflecting how young Saroo feels after accidentally ending up in the alien city of Calcutta. In keeping up with the feelings of desolation and despair, the filmmaker uses wide shots of sweeping Indian landscapes and contrasts them with wide shots of crowded, dirty scenes from the streets of the city. Many scenes from this part of the film also make use of an overwhelming number of extras, most notably when representing the slums where Saroo lives and the inhumane orphanage he is placed in for a while. The combination of these powerful visual cues, along with the physical action depicting the abuse of a helpless child, makes the trauma palpable and heart-wrenching.

Manchester by the Sea, which is set in a completely different place and focuses on a completely different type of person, opens in a surprisingly similar way. The viewer sees Lee, a young man in his twenties on a fishing boat with his older brother and his brother’s son, a boy of about seven years of age. The exchange between them is playful and carefree, emitting a casual kind of love similar to that present between Saroo and Guddu. The film then cuts to about ten years later, and the audience is introduced to Lee the handyman, doing janitorial work for a number of tenants in an apartment building. The exchanges, or lack thereof, that Lee has with the tenants quickly reveals that Lee is standoffish and distant, and not at all like the younger version of himself presented in the very first scene. This feeling continues as the camera follows Lee into a bar, presumably later that day. A woman tries to strike up a conversation with him; he shuts her down. He gets into a fight with two men he doesn’t know and eventually goes home and falls asleep alone in front of the TV. The rest of Lee’s interactions for the entirety of the movie are similar: distant, cold, and aloof.

While the audience has hints that Lee at one point had a loving family, as introduced by the very first flashback scene of the film, it’s unclear what has happened to them and what has caused him to transform into the bitter man he is at present. This ambiguity is one of the major differences between Manchester and Lion, which is due mostly to the distinction in the two films’ chronologies. While Lion goes in sequential order, Manchester plays around with time. The flashback scenes scattered throughout Manchester can be interpreted as Lee’s subconsciousness: the memories are played on screen when they arise in his head. While this makes the meaning behind the memories more powerful, it also makes them extremely subjective; all of the flashback scenes are clearly from Lee’s subconscious and therefore, from his perspective.

This difference in perspective contributes to the distinction between how Lion portrays loss and trauma and how Manchester portrays the same emotions. Lion’s objectivity allows viewers to react to Saroo’s situation with their own emotions. Manchester’s subjectivity causes viewers to see things the way Lee sees and feel similar emotions to him. In other words, the viewer does not react to the situations on-screen with their own emotions, but rather with Lee’s emotions. Since Lee feels deadened and numb about the tragedies that have happened in his life, the viewer also feels this way, experiencing a feeling of dissociation and numbness instead of perhaps the intense outpouring of emotion that Lion may cause the viewer to feel.

Despite the many differences in the characters and storyline of the two films, they are both based on the repercussions that follow after being horribly separated from one’s family. Each film is successful in its own way, whether through the breathtaking tragedy and miracle of Lion or the subtlety and quiet power of Manchester by the Sea. The difference in the two films embodies the varied human experience itself: nobody experiences such powerful and volatile emotions like loss and trauma in quite the same way, which is why having the ability to share these different experiences and reactions through the medium of film has a certain power unto itself.