Awards season is always a dividing time, especially in the UK, where movies that have been lauded as ‘the best of 2016’ aren’t released until 2017 (Downsize’s review of 2016 will run from FEB-JAN). So, for a long time I have had to stew in the praise for films I haven’t been able to form an opinion on yet, meaning that any views on the film have been skewed and affected by media influence. For this reason, I attempted to approach Manchester by the Sea with a certain level of cynicism to counteract the excitement that had been conditioned into me. Not long after sitting down in the cinema all cynicism was pounded into a million little pieces as Kenneth Lonergan’s latest disarmed me with an unexpected humour. It quickly became clear that there was a reason why this film has been batting off praise from all angles.
Casey Affleck leads the charge as the emotionally unavailable Lee Chandler, who must move back home to Manchester, Massachusetts to become the sole guardian for his nephew Patrick after his brother Lee dies of a heart attack. Lee has trouble with the idea of moving back home due to his terrible associations he has with the city and he fails to be the emotional rock that the teenage Pat needs. You would not be blamed for believing that this film is nothing but award season pandering. Lee’s past is a mountain of melancholic misgivings that keeps revealing a higher peak as the clouds begin to dissipate.
Lee Chandler manages to be a frustrating character in every way while somehow still avoiding becoming a pain in the ass. Aware of the influence that this event will have on Pat, he remains oblivious of a satisfactory way to handle the situation, dragging the boy to funeral parlours, will readings and informing Pat that he must uproot his life and move to Quincy. Lee constantly asks other people what he needs to do to make things alright and his insecurities are consistent and clear throughout the viewing. He is a self-destructive man who does not trust himself to handle responsibility for another, and with good reason. He inspires sympathy in every bad decision because each mistake he makes is explainable and that is something that is difficult to instil into a character. Whilst this is mainly down to the writing of the character it cannot be understated how much Affleck’s mumbling vulnerability adds to this. Those who enjoyed his performance in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford will know that Casey Affleck can do vulnerability like no one else.
But beneath all its weighty drama, death and sadness the film finds time to give space to the little things. Lucas Hedges allows Pat to have fun as a normal teenager despite all that is going on around him. Scenes of Pat attempting to get his end away with one of his girlfriends are played like they’re straight out of a screwball comedy. The dialogue maintains a witty back and forth in almost all scenes featuring Lee and Pat and even in moments of gut wrenching sadness the film still manages to find laughs. In particular, a scene involving a midnight snack and a freezer door.
The film is a masterclass in pacing and appropriateness, taking a back seat in the life of Lee it introduces us to his dissatisfaction with life through the goofy words of the clients he serves. It holds back on revealing the true nature of Lee’s relationship with Manchester until it knows its viewers are ready for it. Gut punch follows gut punch follows gut punch but the film never becomes a slog. It hops from the miserable to the comic in refreshingly organic ways. The beginning the film takes a more documentarian approach to Lee’s life, taking a back seat and allowing the actions to speak for themselves. While the dialogue stands out it is in the silence that Manchester by the Sea truly shines. When faced with bad news Lee does not say much, he contorts his face subtly and mumbles some contraction. Affleck acts as a real life Kuleshov effect, allowing viewers to experience the news fresh through Lee’s view rather than being told what to feel. Brevity is the true hero of the piece.
Not everyone wants to feel sad when they go to the cinema, and to those people I say that if there was one film to break that rule for it is this. The film is not a Requiem for a Dream style journey into despair more than it is a movie about moving on. There is something positive to find in every interaction. Always something beautiful to notice.
The film is about characters, it is not spectacle heavy but does have its moments of catharsis. it’s big on laughs and sustains a surprising level of entertainment throughout. It may not be a film that you will watch multiple time but it is a film that will have an effect on anyone who isn’t a miserable cynic on a molecular level. I am trying and failing to come up with criticisms of Manchester by the Sea.