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February 12, 2017

1

Manchester by the Sea

by Franz Patrick


Manchester by the Sea (2016)
★★★ / ★★★★

Broken down to its most basic element, “Manchester by the Sea,” written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, is about a man (Casey Affleck) who has not found a way to move on from a devastating family tragedy but somehow everyone else has. Lee’s every day existence is some form of self-punishment. There is no laughter in his home. He chooses not to make meaningful connections with anybody. Even as he walks around, it appears as though he is carrying the weight of the world. Here is a man who does not wish to continue living and yet he does, at least on the surface, until he is forced to face another tragedy: his brother (Kyle Chandler), not even fifty years of age, has passed away due to a rare heart condition.

For an observant picture in which characters grapple with the consequences of sudden deaths, it is refreshing that it is filled with humor, for better or worse. I admired that the material does not succumb completely to melodrama; notice that just about every other scene we encounter offers humor, whether it be due to the irony of a situation or a simple line uttered, the manner in which it is expressed. Although the subject matter is heavy, the writer-director is smart in choosing to allow his material to breathe. I found this true to life. When there is a death in the family—at least in my family—laughter and humor do not disappear from our lives. Life goes on, even the very next day, and laughter, in a way, revs up our engines so that everybody can move forward together.

Because life is particularly difficult to capture on screen, its approach of balancing humor amidst a death loses power at times. Particularly problematic are scenes involving Lee’s sixteen-year-old nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), and his attempts to make it all the way with a band member. They pretend to do homework upstairs, in the bedroom, doors shut, while everybody knows, including the adults, what exactly it is they are doing. I found this situational humor, and others like it, too sitcom-like, contrived, straight off films with far less emotional power. And for a movie with a running time of around one hundred thirty minutes, trimming some of the fat might have made a leaner, stronger final product.

An alternative would have been to replace such scenes with more meaningful interactions between Lee and Patrick, their relationship so alive, engaging, and true. While they do argue a whole lot, Affleck and Hedges share strong, convincing chemistry. We believe they really are family—but one that isn’t necessarily close, rather forced into a situation where they must find a way to work together until details about guardianship, habitation, what to do with the boat, are ironed out.

The flashbacks, serving as contrast, between Lee and young Patrick are utilized well. These also give us glimpses of the late brother’s personality and how he is like in the face of tragedy. And so when people around town tell Lee how sorry they are for his loss and how his brother was a such a good guy, very warm and personable, we know exactly what they mean. We are reminded of the light that had gone out.

Another notable performance comes from Michelle Williams who plays Lee’s ex-wife. Her character is crucial to the picture because it shows that although people have found a way to move on from a tragedy, it does not mean they’ve forgotten or they’ve walked away unscathed. For Lee, this concept doesn’t quite click. And so he continues to live a life of solitude. We root for him to move on somehow, but we realize halfway through that maybe he isn’t capable. At least not yet—not within the scope of the film. I found myself thinking about Lee and where his life might be heading well after the move was over.

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