At this time of year audiences are used to the films that clearly aim for the Academy Awards. They are affectionately called Oscar bait: highly emotional, and transforming roles for actors vying for the top golden spot. Yet in the ocean of bait movies, some are genuinely heartfelt human films that deserve the hype and their potential shot at the awards.
Manchester by the Sea is a film worth its reviews and word of mouth. It presents a lost character met with further tragedy as well as a new responsibility that could make or truly break him. Although a simple and even familiar story, Manchester by the Sea is grounded and propelled by the brilliant and heartfelt performances of its on form cast, led by Casey Affleck – in a performance that might just bag him this year’s Best Actor award at this year’s Oscars.
Lee Chandler (Affleck) leads a simple life as a handy man in a small town. His life is lonely and framed by repetition. A sudden and unprovoked outburst of aggression in a bar is followed by a phone call informing him of his older brother’s death. It falls to Lee to tell his teenage nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) about his father and that he is now his guardian. This new responsibility takes Lee back to his old home where tragedy, his past, and his own demons all await him.
The film is written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan whose previous film credits include You Can Count on Me and Margaret. Lonergan came from a theatre background and his skill in dialogue and tone are put to great use in his latest feature film.
The story is indeed simple and, in many ways, familiar but it is so brilliantly structured. Manchester by the Sea slowly peels away at the characters and the tragedy that has led Lee to his current state. The narrative juxtaposes Lee as he is now, to his previous happy life with wife Randi (Williams). The deconstruction of his current mental state and character makes for an engaging central role to follow.
The film is a slow burn, particularly its first act. Not much is given away as we look into the simple and frustrating life of Lee. Yet the news of his brother’s death turns his life upside down and he must now care for young Patrick, a task he is neither qualified for or wants. The town’s reaction to his return suggests there is darkness in his past and his anger and frustration may not have always been there.
Despite the films large emphasis on loss and tragedy its dialogue and character dynamics are often witty. Patrick and Lee’s mismatched dynamic as well as Patrick’s teenage antics play out for humour despite their circumstance. This never feels misplaced or odd within the story and writer/director Lonergan matches the wit and despair side by side perfectly.
The director’s physical style is also to be praised here. Beautifully shot, the film is framed by an idyllic town, watery coasts and the enclosed nature a small community offers. The film often lingers on the actors faces, even during silence, creating mood and allowing the actors to give more.
Leading this slow burn drama is an incredible Casey Affleck. In this role he portrays a wounded and haunted man trying to overcome his past tragedies. The repetition of the films opener suggests a simple man but as the film progresses it is clear that anger, hatred and emotional turmoil bubbles under his stoic persona. Through outbursts of aggression and the relationship with his nephew his character devolves and audiences will be gripped.
Newcomer Hedges holds his own opposite Affleck as the orphaned nephew. Despite the loss of his dad his character provides much of the films humour. Yet the smallest of actions break through his numbness and how his loss is truly affecting him.
In only a small role Michelle Williams proves why she is one of the most sought after actresses working today. As Lee’s ex-wife Randi we see them in a previous time and when they are reunited. Her final scene in the film is a woman’s desperate plea to move on despite where Lee is. She pours her emotions out and breaks hearts in the process in the film’s most emotional scene.
For some audiences the slow starter pace and mid mood may not appeal. Yet those willing to engage will find a journey worth seeing through. An emotional, heartfelt and ultimately human tale of loss and love. Simple this film may be, but the cast lift it above and beyond.
Manchester by the Sea is out January 13th