Synopsis – An uncle is forced to take care of his teenage nephew after the boy’s father dies.
My Take – When a loved one dies, we experience a sorrow that is impossible to define and it can take on many different looks through various stages. Being a little emotional by nature, I find it difficult sometimes to sit down for a film that I know is depressing and tackles such kind of subject matters, but honestly I am glad I saw this one as it’s as emotionally powerful as it is exquisitely shot! Receiving well deserved early award buzz especially for Casey Affleck in the lead role, this third directorial effort from renowned playwright and screenwriter Kenneth Lonergan, uses death to display an incredible feel for humor and sarcasm amidst the ominous presence of gloom. Shot in and around Massachusetts, U.S., which genuinely looks beautiful in the film, even the scenes involving winter just looked so gorgeous, serene, and real. Real is a word I think springs to mind for this film because it’s so genuine and just seems like an everyday story of a guy you might know. Here, Kenneth Lonergan proves that he is such an extraordinary and talented writer as his beautifully, and richly, textured drama draws upon the timeless themes of recovery, redemption, and the persistence of guilt in such a way that feels fresh. The emotion is never overbearing for the sake of being overbearing, rather it feels all too real, which is a credit to the writing as much as it is to the fantastic performances. Unlike many big-budget studio films, the film is not afraid to make the audience work and test the viewer’s patience with its constant, and unannounced, cutting between past and present, as well as its unwavering unraveling of character background and motivations.
The story follows Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), a janitor/handyman who spends his days painting, doing minor plumbing work, repairing leaks, and so on or just giving advice while making sure to avoid any social interaction with the people he is working for. His nights are spent drinking alone in bars where he is quick to start fights or at home watching TV in his small apartment. There is no hint during the film’s first half hour about what has brought him to his present state of disequilibrium, but in his mumbling inability to express his thoughts, we know that something unspoken is driving his need for isolation. Lee has been living in nearby Quincy but, when his older brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler) succumbs to a heart attack, he has to return to his home town Manchester to make funeral arrangements and attend the reading of the will and to confront the people that he has turned away from. His grief over his brother’s death turns to shock, however, when he discovers that he has been named the legal guardian of Joe’s 16-year-old son Patrick (Lucas Hedges), a popular high school student. Since Patrick’s mom Elise (Gretchen Mol) is an alcoholic who left town long ago, Lee is the only person who can assume the task. It is one, however, that he does not feel ready for. Eventually, the seminal event that changed Lee’s life forever is revealed, depicted in a straightforward manner without histrionics or pandering, even if the overused baroque music tends to amplify the drama beyond what is required. In flashback, we see that Lee was once a happy family man with a loving wife Randi (Michelle Williams) and three young children and we see him joking around with his young nephew Patrick (Ben O’Brien) on their fishing boat. Assuming the responsibility of being a father-figure to Patrick, we glimpse the man that Lee used to be. Director Lonergan uses flashbacks throughout the film, which seems to be a popular (yet prosperous) form of storytelling as events of Chandler’s past are intertwined with the present. The film does enough of a job of showing why this troubled, down out of luck man, is overcome by the tragic circumstances of his life. There’s such a formulaic, unoriginal premise somewhere in the film, but the film manages to really stand apart on its own as a challenging, deeply felt piece of work. Despite the serious subject matter, there is a surprising warmth that permeates the film. This is a film primarily about a man forced to confront his demons, yes, but it is also a film about family and the ties that bind us to our hometown. Make no mistake, despite its subject matter this film is often hilarious, with the dialogue between Lee and his nephew providing most of the frequent outbursts of laughter in the cinema. Owing to his detachment and fear, Lee is fairly useless as a caregiver to Patrick, who in turn pushes his limits in being allowed to do whatever he wants (mostly chasing girls – there are particularly hilarious scenes when he is trying to get laid). When Lee suffered a loss, his brother was there. When his brother dies, he takes care of his brother’s son. There’s no escaping that, but you can just see everybody in that community just starts pulling their weight and pitching in voluntarily, you don’t see much of that anymore, unfortunately, these days. And throughout the film, Lonergan wants to show us that that sense of having each other’s backs is not yet instinct and he does it in a way that’s honest. Even the arguments between Lee and Patrick, yes you’ll laugh at their trying to make it work but at the same time you’re kind of glad that they at least are arguing, in their own awkward way, they’re communicating. What makes the chilling power of this deceptively simple story so powerful is the consistently cold feel that Lonergan maintains from start to finish. Being set in the northeast, snow appears all over to reflect the plumber’s state of mind, and the cold is felt all the greater depending on the amount of stress tugging between him and his blood relatives. The screen’s empty starkness takes its time to linger on the quietest of moments, screaming the loudest of internal noises without saying a word. There are plenty of independent features out there that tackle the discomforting subject of family death and custody, but none of them handle it with the same level of detail, humanity, and personal application as this one. It’s not the feel-good holiday treat you may be looking for at this time of the year, but considering how family and tragedy essentially go hand-in-hand, Lonergan‘s study on the personal crisis will help countless others in what to do about a similar trauma.
There are a few similarities to this and a film from earlier this year, The Light Between Oceans. Both deal with tragedy and how/if a family can recover from that. But this film chooses the more effective route of storytelling by not shoving emotions down the audience’s throat. Even coming from someone who likes The Light Between Oceans, the more effective directing style would be to let the emotions come out naturally. Kenneth Lonergan‘s directing in this film is nothing short of sensational. The film takes its time and let’s character dynamics and roles play out so that when the time comes to push emotion to the forefront, it’s warranted. Director Lonergan‘s unique style also showed in the calmer moments as well. In tragedy, we often don’t think about all the little tasks you have to do after someone dies, to keep things afloat. Figuring out funeral arrangements, calling everyone, the food arrangements, or even the car rides to and from the hospital are all things Lonergan devoted time to. And it only added to the realness, which in turn made the film all the more heartbreaking. The best part is Lonergan‘s screenplay doesn’t make a false move. This film is largely about inarticulate people trying to process extremely complicated emotions, and they remain inarticulate — they don’t suddenly express their feelings in nicely phrased speeches in order to bring the film to tidy resolutions. The film’s final point, that broken people sometimes just stay broken no matter how badly others want them to have a happy ending, is certainly not uplifting, but there’s something refreshing about how bracingly honest it is. This could have easily taken place anywhere in the world, not necessarily in one particular small town in one particular part of the nation. What makes the Boston-Manchester setting work to its advantage is its subtle handling of the culture, right down to the look, feel, and taste of the area. The much-needed emphasis on father and son bonding through the quietness of fishing bookends the film with the one single image that defines everything valued by the people who live there. Also similar to last year’s big Oscar-winner Spotlight, there is a clear presence of Catholicism guiding the lives of all Bostonians, whether or not they consider themselves religious. They claim that all Catholics are Christian, which is not entirely true, nor is it said so in the feature, but it works to the advantage of making the sense of hope they seek after touch much closer to home. In addition to the brilliant writing and wonderful cinematography (Jody Lee Lipes), it’s the highest level of acting that elevates this film to the level of extraordinary. This is the ‘Casey Affleck show’ from beginning to end; you can just give him the ‘Best Actor’ Oscar right now and save everyone a whole lot of trouble. He radiates this aura of subtle magnetism so brilliantly and effortlessly; there’s not a single emotion on the spectrum that goes unexploited. He is astonishingly good and it’s no wonder that there is a strong early buzz around his performance. He essentially plays two different characters, a man before trauma and a man after. The ‘before’ in flashbacks is fairly simple, a relatively friendly and happy-go-lucky guy who spends a lot of time with his friends and family, has a close relationship with his nephew, etc. But where he excels is in the quiet desperation of the present-day Lee Chandler. With this character there are only rare moments of outward emotion – but Affleck plays it so that it is painfully clear just how much hurt Lee is keeping inside. Best Actor Oscar nomination, and highly possible win, incoming. Despite having a small yet significant part in the film, Michelle Williams‘ performance is a treasure to behold. There’s one scene, in particular, where she got everyone in attendance wishing they brought a tissue. Lucas Hedges also brings a nuanced and sincere portrayal of a teenager left to fend for himself. Giving more than ample support are Kyle Chandler, Gretchen Mol, Heather Burns and Matthew Broderick in a smaller role. On the whole, ‘Manchester by the Sea’ is without a doubt the most personal and heart wrenching film of the year with an astounding award worthy turn from Casey Affleck.
Directed – Kenneth Lonergan
Rated – R
Run Time – 137 minutes