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Review: Manchester by the Sea (2016)

Manchester by the Sea (2016)

Directed by: Kenneth Lonergan

Premise: Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) returns to his hometown following the death of his brother. Lee discovers that he has been named the caretaker of his teenage nephew (Lucas Hedges) but Lee resists relocating to Manchester by the Sea because of a past tragedy.

What Works: Manchester by the Sea showcases a terrific lead performance by Casey Affleck as Lee, a janitor who harbors trauma from a tragedy in his past. Affleck carries that grief with his character. In virtually every scene Lee is haunted by his guilt. The movie also includes a notable supporting performance by Michelle Williams as Lee’s ex-wife. Although she isn’t in the film very much, Williams makes an impact that ripples throughout the rest of the picture. Part of the reason that these performances are so impressive is the structure of the narrative. The story is told out of sequence. It opens with Lee discovering that his brother has died and upon returning to Manchester by the Sea he remembers the events that drove him to leave the town. Affleck gauges his performance between past and present so that his character’s pain in the present-tense contrasts with his joy in the past. The nonlinear narrative structure of Manchester by the Sea is used very well. The flashbacks are well timed and enhance the meaning of present day scenes by filling in the past. Especially impressive is the way the film gradually reveals the tragedy of Lee’s history. From the opening of the movie it is clear that something is eating at him and the film skillfully reveals the past in a way that changes our understanding of his character. And as Lee struggles to confront the guilt that preoccupies his thoughts, the filmmakers of Manchester by the Sea make a few subversive choices. Most Hollywood pictures are about characters who triumph over adversity and seek redemption. Manchester by the Sea does not give itself over to that kind of wish fulfillment. The movie presents characters who might not get over their trauma and cannot escape their past. But the movie isn’t harsh about that truth. The filmmakers empathize with the struggle and find the humanity in it.

What Doesn’t: The weakest element of Manchester by the Sea is Patrick, the teenage nephew played by Lucas Hedges. For a high school student who has just lost his father, Patrick isn’t presented in a way that is credible. The problem is split between Hedges’ choices as an actor and the writing of the screenplay. Patrick has just lost his father and the foundation of his life has been tossed into uncertainty. But Patrick mostly carries on as though everything else were normal. Actor Lucas Hedges doesn’t carry that grief in his line delivery or his body language and the film does not offer opportunities to reveal how the loss impacts him. Lee wants to relocate his nephew to Boston, which would take Patrick away from his friends, his high school, and other social connections. The teenager protests the change but Patrick’s resistance comes off less as an act of grief and more like the irritation of inconvenience. The flaws of the teenage character are indicative of a broader problem with Manchester by the Sea. Almost everything about it is on the surface. There’s no subtext. This results in characters who are uninteresting and neither they nor the audience reach an epiphany beyond the obvious. The film also struggles with its plotting. The story introduces ideas and conflicts that don’t go anywhere or are resolved too easily. Patrick is estranged from his mother, a recovered alcoholic played by Gretchen Mol. He reunites with her but this lasts exactly one scene and doesn’t come up again. There is also the matter of the family fishing boat. This is a point of contention between Patrick and Lee but the fate of the boat also comes to a swift end without sacrifice or insight.

Bottom Line: Manchester by the Sea showcases impressive performances by Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams. It isn’t an especially deep movie and it doesn’t fulfill viewers in the way mainstream motion pictures usually do but it is admirably non-Hollywood in its honesty.

Episode: #628 (January 1, 2017)