Manchester by the Sea, 2016.
Directed by Kenneth Lonergan.
Starring Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, Lucas Hedges, Tate Donovan, C.J Wilson, Gretchen Mol, Kara Hayward, Josh Hamilton, Anna Baryshnikov, and Matthew Broderick
An uncle is forced to take care of his teenage nephew after the boy’s father dies.
“I can’t beat it” – Those four small but powerful words might be the most emotional piece of dialogue heard all year.
The quote in reference comes from Casey Affleck, playing an absolute broken and tormented soul. It would be a travesty and disservice to readers spoiling why (shame on any critic that actually does in their review), so let’s just say he has suffered Shakespearean levels of extreme tragedy. The worst part is that a great deal of immaturity brought on the scenario, and everything was 100% avoidable. The resulting pain is seemingly eternal, and Lee (Casey Affleck) can’t beat the suffering, the emptiness, the self-loathing, and the depression that has haunted him since that horrific night.
Manchester by the Sea isn’t just about reflecting on the dark past, as Lee now works a minimum wage job fixing up various problems for an apartment’s tenants. He hasn’t moved on or forgiven himself, as Casey Affleck (who will most likely win the Oscar for Best Actor) plays the character almost catatonic and emotionless. He finds no connection whatsoever with anyone he talks to (and rarely ever makes eye contact with anyone) and is apathetic to almost everything on the surface, including the death of his brother who had been suffering from a heart disease. Writer and director Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count on Me, Margaret) doesn’t lean in on the drama to create over-the-top melodramatic nonsense, instead choosing to paint the portrait as one of cold reality.
There is a scene where Lee is tasked by his nephew Patrick (a grieving teenager in a breakthrough performance by Lucas Hedges) to keep the mother of one of his girlfriends occupied (yes, the athletic charmer has two girlfriends, although neither knows about the other) so the pair can finally fornicate in the upstairs bedroom. The mother clearly has a crush on Lee, so what ensues is an excellently crafted piece of morbid comedy where Lee awkwardly shrugs off every attempt at conversation. As an audience we are wholly empathetic, which is actually incredible; it’s hard to be empathetic towards a character like Lee that brought on his own darkness, but that’s master-class writing for you.
One might begin to assume that Manchester by the Sea might slowly begin to take the form of a formulaic tale of redemption, as Lee is chosen by Lucas’ father to be the guardian in the event of his death, and that person would be wrong. It’s also not necessarily about moving on. No, Manchester by the Sea is more about the struggle and the daily grind to find the necessary strength to push on forward in life, regardless of what happens.
Outside of the juxtaposition between the past and present life of Lee (showcasing the 180 personality and attitude changes of him before and after the aforementioned tragic event that is the anchor of the film), the dynamic between how Lee and Patrick each deal with the loss is also greatly intriguing. Although Lee is as mentioned, apathetic on the surface, his sadness is there and is buried inside his body right next to the aftermath of what caused his depression. Meanwhile, Patrick invites friends over and gets laid. It’s not that he is some immature little heathen that doesn’t care about his father passing, but much like Lee, he also mostly suppresses his dark feelings of sadness outside of some occasional panic attacks.
Manchester by the Sea is a very moving and genuine slice of filmmaking about loss and how we attempt to keep moving on in life. Lee doesn’t feel equipped at all to deal with parenting Patrick (who probably does need some guidance and parenting considering he just casually thinks it’s acceptable to carry on with two different girlfriends) and it’s for good reason. Naturally, the two also butt heads about the situation as it means that Patrick will have to relocate from Manchester to Boston, leaving his friends and girlfriends, along with a very promising career in sports behind. I want to reiterate that the movie is not about redemption, but there definitely is a part of Lee that forces himself to step up and try to do right by the kid. Lee himself might believe that there is nothing left in his heart; I would disagree.
Although the film is centered on the relationship between Lee and Patrick, Manchester by the Sea boasts an impressive supporting cast that makes every second of their limited screen time count. Most noteworthy is Michelle Williams portraying Lee’s ex-wife (both in the past and present regarding how the tragic event also affected her) who gets an emotionally charged back-and-forth talk with Lee towards the end that will assuredly push an already great performance into Best Supporting Actress Oscar territory. Gretchen Mol also plays the estranged alcoholic mother of Patrick, while Matthew Broderick has a scene portraying her newly remarried husband as a heavily devoted Christian. Essentially, the ensemble cast is amazing.
Kenneth Lonergan also employs a creative decision to frame the film around wintery backgrounds along with faded and dull color palettes, meant to reflect Lee’s emotional distance and depression. There are also some very nice shot compositions on the cinematography side, especially during the scene at hockey practice where Lucas has broken the news of his father’s death. Flashback sequences of Lee and a much younger Patrick fishing together on his father’s boat (a boat that also plays a large sentimental role in the film) are peaceful and quiet, reminding audiences of much better and happier times.
The heart of Manchester by the Sea though is how real every scenario and piece of dialogue feel. Casey Affleck brings to the table the best performance of his career, filling it up with so much emptiness and sadness that the film will linger on your mind probably forever after watching it. It’s without a doubt one of the best movies of the year and will deserve every Oscar nomination it is destined to accumulate. Finally, I will go one step further and call it the most powerful film of the year. Somewhere out there in fictional movie land, long after the credits roll, audiences will be rooting for Lee to beat it.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★