There’s always the handful of films that receive acclaim based only on slithers of pre-screening information. A leading role for an underdog, an enigmatic title and an established director. This is all I knew about Manchester by the Sea.
Written and directed by industry veteran Kenneth Lonergan, the film focuses on the not entirely original premise of the passing of a loved one which leaves a lot of pieces to pick up. Manchester by the Sea, in fact, manages to depict a unique display of family grief, loneliness, and turmoil of the most heartbreaking. On paper, it sounds like your usual killer recipe. In reality, what sets MBS apart is that when Lee Chandler’s world is broken by his brother Joe’s passing, the film does not soak in honey or spread fairy dust over the shattered bits of his life. It looks at them, breaks them down a bit more, and accepts them.
The film strives with its two leads, Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges. The pair, not exactly strangers to the big screen, work so well as the relatives who simply do not. They embody the stillness, the unspoken grief but also the effects that this grief has on these men’s own insecurities. Manchester by the Sea appeals in its balance between the extremely powerful and at times highly original storyline, and the character study which hits so close to home. Selfishness plays a key part in explaining the inexplicable, in justifying the fact that it may seem that not much happens in this aftermath, because in reality that is just it – life goes on.
It doesn’t always burn and then rise from the ashes in two hours and 20 minutes. It lingers on the late night panic attack, it remembers the time she almost slept with him and the evening that he lost everything. Lonergan skilfully crafts his film, playing with pacing and emotional tones. This provides a compelling picture, equally truly funny and utterly and harrowing in turn. He finds the essence of a relationship between people who had each other and know each other, who now know nothing at all. He takes this essence and unfolds it into an array of snippets – they don’t need to be elaborate rise and fall narratives, they just fit.
At times, the film’s aesthetic takes away some of the honesty provided by the story’s core. An amalgamation of music confuses some of the more impactful scenes, classical concertos overpowering and dizzying what needn’t be too complex. However, the return to a simplistic and melancholic original score blows any unease out of the water. It is difficult to define what Casey Affleck does so well. He manages to take the story of Lee, tragic and tormenting in turn, and visibly tell it while remaining completely contained. Lee breaks, stops, pauses and remembers as the audience does too. It is in part the film’s structure that gives this effect, but it is mostly Affleck’s performance which grabs the viewer and holds their gut with no release.
He isn’t the standard troubled hero, who after getting beaten up may go for a run before turning his life around. He is polite, caring and doing the best he can – most of the time. It is so refreshing to see a man on screen who isn’t really the bad guy, or the hardly credible good guy. Patrick (Lucas Hedges) is equally enticing, embodying the greed of youth without ever falling into mockery or vulgarity. His performance carries great emotional weight and a good amount of spark – he is the boy you’ve brought home that your mum likes, and your dad is slightly concerned about. The female characters seem to matter very little – Michelle Williams’ imposing presence in marketing material for the film feels somewhat overdone when you really look at the film. However, this doesn’t raise an issue for the film’s mistreatment of women, as that’s not really what it is about at all.
Manchester by the Sea focuses on the mental health of these men and their relationship to the rest of the world – the gender of those around them then becomes slightly irrelevant. It is a shame that these characters – girlfriends and ex-wives and everything in between – are so much more superficial, but when viewers’ attention returns to Lee and Patrick, you forget anything else ever mattered. Together they show honesty, love, respect and the insecurities of a young modern man struggling with the loss of a role model. The story treads new ground in a daringly emotional exploration of male mental health and the power and obligation of family ties. Manchester by the Sea is a humbling and deeply special watch.