For my money, no screen Bostonian tops Ben Affleck's Chuckie. Affleck was still a relatively unfamiliar face back in 1997, with a less dazzling set of teeth. He had the accent nailed, the swagger of the semiemployed, and the outfits—the outfits! One track suit after another, with the de rigueur gold chain worn outside the white turtleneck. By contrast, Matt Damon's Will Hunting was too pretty to be believable as a hard kid from Southie. Trust me on this point. I tried sporting floppy bangs like that in the neighborhood, and they didn't secure the respect of my fellow men. But as precisely the type of guy who used to call me Goldilocks, Affleck is perfect. There's the classic "retaiiiner" speech, of course, and also this saccharine, yet still perceptive exchange, in which Chuckie makes clear that he knows his own limitations. He's provincial. But he knows that he's provincial. And that almost makes him cosmopolitan. That's Boston.
Part of the irony, of course, is that Affleck's not from Boston. He's from what Bostonians insist on calling the People's Republic of Cambridge. In writing a movie about the gulf between Cambridge and Southie, and choosing to play the guys from Southie, Affleck and Damon took a risk, and they delivered well enough that the movie has been embraced in Boston. So, I won't begrudge Affleck simply for being Nawt from Dawt, as one Boston blog puts it. (Hell, if we could only claim our genuine native sons, we'd be stuck with the New Kids on the Block.)
Gone Baby Gone does certainly plunge into the neighborhood. Affleck offsets gorgeous, soaring helicopter shots of Southie with exterior shots of lived-in feeling homes around the Fields Corner section of Dorchester, and up and down Dot Ave. Casey Affleck's Boston accent, delivered in his peculiar febrile croak, isn't quite as good as his brother's, but he could pass for a local. And as Helene McCready, the floozy mother of a missing girl, The Wire's Amy Ryan (who hails not from Boston, but from Queens) creates an indelible Bostonian worthy even of Chuckie. As does her phenomenal, foulmouthed sidekick, Dottie, who cusses and preens and, in an inspired Boston malapropism, tells the press there will be a candlelight "visual" for the missing girl.
Yet while the three-deckers and the "real"-looking people might lead one to conclude that Affleck had adopted some kind of guerilla vérité technique, you've got to wonder: Where are all the Vietnamese people? Over the past 15 years Dot Ave, and especially the area around Fields Corner, has become home to a burgeoning community of Vietnamese immigrants. Gone Baby Gone effectively lays bare some of the casual racism in Boston, and those scenes add nuance and credibility to the movie. But that nuance is undermined when you consider the effort that must have gone into creating a Fields Corner without a single Vietnamese passer-by or storefront sign.
This is a modest cavil, I know. To the extent that filmgoers in the Midwest have any notion of racial tension in Boston, it's probably a white-black, legacy-of-busing thing. Throw a bunch of Vietnamese people in there, and you'll just confuse things. Plus, there's a lot to celebrate about Gone Baby Gone; it certainly comes closer to accurately depicting Boston than its predecessors. But for all its authenticity, the Dorchester of the movie still looks the way it might look to an outsider—someone from Los Angeles, say, or from Cambridge. You don't have to stick around through the closing credits for the personal thank yous to Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz to gather that while Affleck may forever be one of Boston's most famous sons, at the end of the day, the guy's Nawt from Dawt.