Review: Manchester by the Sea

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Directed by: Kenneth Lonergan
Written by: Kenneth Lonergan
Starring: Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler

Summary: After the death of his brother, Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is given parental rights over his 16 year old nephew and returns to his hometown where he is confronted with a troubling past.

“Don’t you think we got screwed by that movie!?” That was what the woman a few seats over from me said when the final credits of Manchester by the Sea began to roll.

This is not going to be a movie for everyone. It’s dark and existentially sad in a way that will stick with you. It relishes in the tension that it makes the audience feel and I carried that tension with me even after I left the theater. I don’t think anyone leaves a screening of this movie feeling any better than they did before they got to the theater; in fact, you might feel marginally worse…but that’s sort of what I love about it.

There are a few technical elements that deserve special attention.

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Much of the film jumps between the events currently happening in Lee’s life and moments from his past. I’m sure much of this was written into the screenplay but executing those transitions effectively was key in maintaining the integrity of the story, so major credit is due to Jennifer Lame for her job as editor. She does a great job matching and juxtaposing visuals in a way that provides a seamless transition from scenes in the present and scenes in the past without generating confusion. I was really disappointed to see that Manchester by the Sea wasn’t nominated for a Best Editing Oscar because the way this film was cut was a contributing factor to its lasting emotional affect. The “big reveal” of this movie comes during the scene when Lee is informed that he will be his nephew’s legal guardian; most of that scene is in the trailer, but what you don’t see is how it cuts back and forth between what Lee is currently experiencing and this hugely defining moment in his past. That scene was essential and I think its success is mostly due to the way it was cut together.

The score for Manchester by the Sea (written by Lesley Barber) is particularly interesting. It relies heavily on vocals and the organ, almost like something that might be performed in a church. Considering the cloud of sadness that hangs over this story, the score can be surprisingly bright. It has a chill to it, sometimes echoing the sound of a requiem, but the score isn’t used in a way to drive home an emotional point, that job was left entirely up to the actors. It was really more of a transitional tool.

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There are some really good performances in Manchester by the Sea. Casey Affleck pulls off something really impressive playing Lee. He is somehow emotionally detached and an exposed raw nerve at the same time. Those two things are so fundamentally opposite and he teeters on the edge of both so well. Lucas Hedges is perfect as Lee’s nephew, Patrick. He’s a well adjusted, smart ass, 16 year old kid with a rich social circle that he leans on as he grieves the death of his father. Lee is so detached that he can’t offer his nephew much in the way of emotional support. The two of them bicker but there’s also a clear history of affection for one another. Most of the movie hinged on the audience “buying” this relationship and it absolutely worked. Michelle Williams also plays a very powerful part as Lee’s ex-wife. She’s hardly in the movie, but her scenes are memorable.

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Technical mastery and excellent performances are nothing if they aren’t rallied around an excellent screenplay and some solid directing. Kenneth Lonergan did a really great job orchestrating Manchester by the Sea. In a year of not-so-great screenplays Kenneth Lonergan’s work really stands out. He wrote a compelling story that was told in a compelling way and was executed beautifully by his team of technical experts and on-screen talent. That speaks very highly to his brilliance as a director.

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I started this breakdown by talking about tension, because that’s really where Manchester by the Sea lives. It kept opening up doors for emotionally satisfying moments or relief from this strained tension, but it never really comes. The events of Lee’s past are so damaging that he has needed to remove himself from Manchester physically and emotionally in order to survive. There are many strained moments when it would have been much more satisfying to watch a character have a breakdown and release some of the tension that had been building, but it doesn’t really ever happen. It sounds silly, and perhaps it was my maternal instincts peeping through, but I’ve never mentally chastised characters for not embracing one another in a moment of grief. I found myself during several scenes just thinking “Just hug him!” as if somehow that act of affection would solve the problem or soften the memory that has nearly bled Lee of all of his humanity.

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As an audience member, I wanted these breakdowns. I wanted to see mature growth between Patrick and Lee, I wanted to see an emotional confrontation that gave me some kind of resolution.  I wanted relief. But it never comes, because Lee never gets relief either.

Final Verdict: A
The emotional connection I’m able to make with a film weighs in pretty heavily when I evaluate a film and Manchester by the Sea aced that category. There’s no melodrama or sweeping orchestral score to sway you into feeling a certain way; the story and characters are laid bare and honest and that vulnerability made it that much more relatable. That reliability will make some audiences too uncomfortable to appreciate the film, but I think that’s also one of its finest accomplishments.
So – no, woman in the theater next to me, we absolutely did not get screwed by this movie.


Oscar Consideration

Nominated for…
Best Picture
Best Actor, Casey Affleck
Best Supporting Actor, Lucas Hedges
Best Supporting Actress, Michelle Williams
Best Directing, Kenneth Lonergan
Best Original Screenplay, Kenneth Lonergan

I was delighted to see Lucas Hedges nominated, I think he’s a young actor with a lot of potential and this kind of Oscar attention might get him considered for some great roles in the future. It was expected that Casey Affleck would win the Best Actor Oscar until the SAG Awards recently when Denzel Washington took that one home from Fences, so I’m curious to see how that plays out. Kenneth Lonergan did a great job directing this but that category is almost sure to go to Damien Chazelle for La La Land or Barry Jenkins for Moonlight. I would actually really like Manchester by the Sea to win for Best Original Screenplay. It’s a really well written film and definitely stands out from its competitors in this category. La La Land keeps winning for Best Screenplay which I do not understand, but I’ll be able to forecast this better after the Writers Guild Awards next week.

Won…
Best Actor, Casey Affleck
Best Original Screenplay

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