Review: Manchester by the Sea

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MANCHESTER BY THE SEA

For those readers that do not live in Massachusetts, Manchester by the Sea is actually the name of a town. It is a scenic, hour or so drive up the coast from Boston, and it has a population of about 5000 people. Most folks just call it Manchester (or Manchestah, to be more accurate), and it is thus referred to exclusively in the film. That may clear up any confusion you have about the title, although why this became the title of the film is still relatively unclear. Screenwriter Kenneth Lonergan – who probably isn’t naturally Lonnahgen because he’s a New Yorker, not a Bostonian – is the guy you may know from writing Gangs of New York and Analyze This (and That). He also doubles as director in this very somber tale of loss and hardship.

Manchester stars Casey Affleck (of the Cambridge Afflecks – you may know his brother Ben) in what I first thought to be a “powerhouse” role, but after further contemplation, I’m not so sure. His character, Lee Chandler (Chandlah) is a janitor working in Boston. It’s a pitiful job, and he looks miserable doing it. After receiving a phone call about a family tragedy, he heads north to Manchestah to pick up the pieces. Through a series of flashbacks, we the audience learn about Lee’s also-tragic past. The film is roughly twenty-five percent flashback, which makes the screenwriter in me twitch a little bit. However, it would have been much worse with direct exposition dialogue, so it’s really not as annoying as it sounds. What impressed me about Lonergan’s writing is that Manchester doesn’t hold your hand with obvious clues to Lee’s dark past. The little snippets you receive are pieced together through his memories, and by the end, you get a pretty good idea of what kind of man he really is.

The bad part about the whole thing is that there really isn’t much of a story. It’s essentially a “slice of life” film that just follows some characters around for a while, watches what they do for a while, has some drama here and there, and then rolls the credits – leaving you, Joe Audience, thinking you’ve either witnessed a masterpiece or wasted 135 minutes. Similar to Boyhood or In the Bedroom, there’s not a blatent objective for the main character to overcome. Lee Chandler has a hard life. The film watches him live it. It’s not spectacular; it’s not terrible. It just… is.

Affleck does a great job at showing you the essence of Lee Chandler’s misery and apathy, but the character doesn’t do a whole lot of changing through the film. It’s a monotone performance that isn’t bad, considering the lack of character development he was dealt in the script, and it garnered him a nomination for Actor in a Leading Role. He’s joined by 20 year old Lucas Hedges, who also got a nomination for Supporting Actor, playing his nephew Patrick. Hedges is the star of this film, as far as I’m concerned. Not the leading role, but the performance that stole the screen in every scene. The Patrick character probably is the most complex – considering it’s a coming-of-age film from his perspective. This young man has a bright future ahead of him. Rounding out the list of acting nominees is Michelle Williams, who play’s Lee’s ex wife. Williams is on the screen for maybe fifteen minutes. Maybe. And she is nominated for Actress in a Supporting Role. She does show lots of emotion in that fifteen minutes, and we all know how the Academy loves giving people nominations because they cry, so it’s not a surprise that she got the nod. She did prove more effective than the 8 minutes of screen time that won Judy Dench an Oscar for Shakespeare In Love, so I suppose that justifies things a little.

Lonergan’s script, which did get nominated, and resulting film, nominated for Best Picture, are bleak and depressing. Nothing all that happy happens in the movie, and even though I enjoyed the performances – and the film – well enough, I felt like I needed to blast some 80’s music and eat an ice cream cone to wash the melancholy off of me afterward. And it wasn’t necessarily the life events that take place in the film that made me blue. It was the lack of real conflict, and the lack of real change in any character that left me less invested than a good film should make me. I felt like if the end credits didn’t role, I would just keep watching people live their lives forever.

I’m personally rooting for Hedges to win more than any other nomination this film garnered, but I think his chances are slim. Manchester may not win anything, but it obviously touched a nerve in enough of the 6500 voters to get eight nominations. Heck, if for no other reason, watch to hear some people talk with an accent. Just be prepared for a heavy subject matter and not a lot of action.

-Steve
1.29.2016

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