MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (2016)
Directed by Kenneth Lonergan
Roadside Attractions, 137 minutes, R (language, suggestive sexuality)
Manchester by the Sea is centered on a searing question: Can you contemplate being accessory an unintentional deed for which you can never forgive yourself? The film has garnered lots of early praise, and Casey Affleck has emerged as the odds-on favorite for Best Actor for his lead as Lee Chandler, the person who must answer the above question.
We first meet Lee in Quincy, Massachusetts, where he works as janitor for an apartment complex. It's a shitty job-often literally so–but he usually doesn't mind as he's done the above deed and he's now as hollow as a chocolate Easter bunny. He'd probably while away the rest of his life in affectless aimlessness, but for the phone call that lands him north to the twee North Shore town of Manchester-by-the-Sea. (The hyphens have been removed for the film–presumably to make it friendlier for posters.) Lee's beloved brother Joe (Kyle Chandler), a fisherman, has just died and, to Lee's chagrin, Joe has appointed him as guardian of his sixteen-year-old son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Lee loves his nephew, but he also feels deep in his soul that he's not fit to be a surrogate dad. But if not Lee, who? Joe and his alcoholic wife, Elise (Gretchen Moll), divorced years ago and she left the area. Perhaps family friend and fellow fisherman George (C. J. Wilson), but he and his wife are getting on in years and watching their own children move out. Then there's Patrick himself to consider. He's a strapping good-looking guy who loves the water and is pretty content being a high school hockey hunk over whom girls swoon. He's also salty-tongued and headstrong ; he flat out refuses to move to Minnesota to be with another relative, or to sell his father's in-need-of-major-repairs boat.
One reason to see this film is to experience Manchester-by-the-Sea by as we seldom see it. It's generally considered a snooty, wealthy town. And so it is–for the resort and second-home set; if you're a local or a lobsterman, not so much. Director and scriptwriter Kenneth Lonergan leaves the high rollers in the background and refracts this film in hues of blue-collar. As we learn in various flashback sequences, the lives of the working-class Chandlers hasn't been the stuff invoked by picture postcards and sprawling houses overlooking the bay. Some of the misfortune has been of their own making, but lots has simply been from the bad hands they've been dealt. As if Lee doesn't have enough on his plate, his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams) reappears, as does Elise and her serious Christian second husband (Matthew Broderick).
This has the makings of a tense drama, which is exactly what Manchester by the Sea is. Affleck and Hedges are both terrific and I can see why Affleck and Oscar are mentioned in the same breath. We (too) often honor histrionic performances from actors portraying someone plagued by extraordinary circumstance (physical challenges, gender confusion, looming death), but Affleck has a much harder role. How does one "show" us anything about a man so dispirited that he yearns for emotionless anonymity? How does that actor make us care about someone from whom being "ordinary" would pass as ambition? Hedges also hits a lot of the right notes, especially when he's being a typical teen with emotions that are a bundle of contradictions that come out in unexpected ways. Outwardly he's no more broken up by his father's death than over being unable to work out the logistics of having sex with the flirty Sylvie (Kara Hayward), or being annoyed by the offbeat drumming in the really bad garage band in which he and Sylvie play. (The band scenes will take you back to your own teen days and make you cringe!) But watch for the subtle ways in which Hedges releases emotions. In real life, Hedges is just 19; his future looks very promising.
Whatever problems this film has are small and are mostly script-related. Hedges is very good, but sometimes his role makes him seem more on the cusp of 35 than 17. Michelle Williams' performance has also been praised, but I'd call it typical Hollywood in that her role in underwritten and is more of a cameo than anything deserving of a Best Supporting Actress nod. Hyper-masculinity is one of this film's subthemes, so don't expect a lot of screen time for Moll or Hayward either. The argument that a male-centered worldview resonates with blue-collar life will not go down well with those critical of how Hollywood pushes women to the margins. One could also make a good case that the film is overlong for one in which more is left unsaid than is vocalized.
I'll grant that it's not a perfect film by any means. Still, I give it huge props for sticking to character and avoiding clichéd transformations. My guess is that this film will open strongly and taper off fast–in part because of my last point. I overheard a woman say to her friend as they exited the theater, "I guess we should have gone to the comedy instead." This film won't please those seeking miracles and nostrums. In other words, many will eschew it for exactly the reasons I admired it.