The Oscars are almost upon us and once again I’ve only managed to see about half of the movies in the running. LA LA LAND might be the bookies’ favourite, but MANCHESTER BY THE SEA is my pick to take the top honour. Sometimes honesty and groundedness is more lasting than heady escapism, and Kenneth Lonergan’s drama certainly made far more of an impact on me.
Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is forced to take a sabbatical and travel from Boston to Manchester to look after his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) following the sudden death of his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler). Lee does not want to stay in a place filled with so many painful memories and is far from the most ideal, or willing guardian, and Patrick responds badly to the interruption of his full social life. Will they be able to find a compromise and just get along?
Affleck has always been good, but he’s never quite been this good. He turns Lee’s social awkwardness into an art form- at first, you think he just doesn’t care because he’s not a people person (see his passive-aggressive responses to his building tenants and his blunt refusal of any advance made by a woman). But as the story progresses, you come to realise how much daily agony he is in over his past and that he is simply protecting himself, his only way to get through life and stick to routines with as few personal ties and distractions as possible. I’m not convinced Lee was ever a particularly extrovert person even before his tragedy – we see him open and happy with ex-wife Randy (Michelle Williams) in flashback, but he always had a confident and determined older brother in Joe to take the majority of the limelight and to look out for him.
While Michelle Williams gets second billing, and Randy is an important contributing factor to where Lee finds himself, she is hardly in the film in terms of screentime and the emotional core comes from the very real reluctant relationship between Lee and Patrick and the unflinchingly honest way Affleck and Hedges play it. In their hands, faltering relationship advice from an emotionally repressed guardian and bickering about priorities becomes far more compelling than a marriage that can’t survive a tragic accident. The supporting players (especially Kyle Chandler and CJ Wilson) all put in strong work, but it all comes back sooner or later to the reluctant family forced together by circumstance.
The film wasn’t as unrelentingly miserable as I expected, either. Serene seascapes juxtapose the trauma and tragedy is punctuated with darkly funny moments, just as real life is. Patrick insists on seeing his father’s body and does a full 180 straight out the door with a grimace and a “nope” immediately upon seeing the cadaver (“How does he look?”/”He looks dead”). Bravely, even the story’s emotional crest, where we witness the very moment of Lee’s eternal torment, is broken by a problem with a stubborn ambulance gurney.
I did find the music a little incessant at times. When emotions are running so high and the situation is so grounded in the real, you really don’t need any more prompts to feel. I’m also not sure the loose plot structure with past and present blurring to represent Lee’s hazy view of things was entirely necessary. For me, the story might have had an even greater emotional crescendo if the story was told straight and chronologically, especially considering the lengthy runtime, but that could be down to your preference in filmmaking style.
Though faultless performances and characterisation across the board and a sure hand behind the camera, Manchester by the Sea grabs you by the soul and doesn’t let go. I know La La Land is lovely, but this is the real keeper, one that’ll keep eliciting a reaction as long as modern families are funny, sad and complicated units. SSP