Playing Catch-Up: Manchester By The Sea (dir by Kenneth Lonergan)


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Manchester By The Sea is the latest Oscar contender to be set in Massachusetts.  I’m not exactly sure why but it appears that if you want your film to get some sort of Oscar consideration, it’s always good idea to set it some place in New England.

Consider some of the films nominated for Best Picture since the 1992:

1992′ Scent of a Woman featured a New England prep school.

1994’s The Shawshank Redemption took place in Maine.

1997’s Good Will Hunting took place in Boston.

1999’s The Cider House Rules was set in Maine.

2001’s In The Bedroom took place in Maine.

2003’s Mystic River was set in Boston.

The 2006 winner The Departed was also a Boston-set film.

2010’s The Fighter also set in Boston.  For that matter, The Social Network started at Harvard.

2013’s Captain Phillips featured Tom Hanks speaking with Boston accent.

And, finally, last year’s Spotlight was as much a celebration of Boston as anything else.

As of this writing, it appears that Manchester By The Sea will continue the long tradition of New England-set films being nominated for best picture.  Interestingly, of all those films, Manchester By The Sea is probably the most low-key.  Though it’s a film that deals with death, it’s a natural death as opposed to the violent executions that dominated The Departed and Mystic River.  And though there are two bar fights, there’s very little violence to be found in Manchester By The Sea.  As opposed to Spotlight, Manchester By The Sea is not about moral crusaders battling against the corrupt establishment.

Instead, it’s the story of an intelligent but irresponsible man named Lee Chadler (Casey Affleck).  When Lee was a young man living in the town of Manchester-By-The-Sea, he was someone.  He was a high school hockey star.  He made an okay living, he had a lot of friends, and he was very close to his older brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler).  He was married to Randi (Michelle Williams) and he had two daughters.

And then he lost everything.  He lost his daughters, through a stupid accident for which he blamed himself.  Randi divorced him.  His friends abandoned him.  The only thing that prevented him from shooting himself was the intervention of Joe.  Lee eventually ended up in Quincy, Massachusetts, working as a maintenance man and keeping to himself.

And that’s probably what Lee would have done his entire life, if Joe hadn’t died.  Lee returns to Manchester-By-The-Sea and, to his shock, he discovers that he’s been named the guardian of Joe’s sixteen year-old son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges).  Still struggling with his own feelings of guilt, Lee now finds himself thrust into the role of being a father.

Patrick, of course, doesn’t think he needs a guardian and sometimes, it almost seems as if Patrick might be right.  At times, it’s hard not to feel that Patrick is a hundred times more mature than his uncle but occasionally, Patrick’s grown-up mask will slip.  When he learns that his father cannot be buried until the spring and the body will be kept in a freezer, Patrick stays calm until he opens up the freezer at home.  That’s when the reality of it all hits him and it’s an amazingly powerful moment.

Manchester By The Sea is not an easy film to describe.  There’s not much of a plot.  Instead, it’s just a portrait of people living from day-to-day, trying to juggle handling tragedy with handling everyday life.  Conditioned by previous films, audiences watch something like Manchester By The Sea and wait for some gigantic dramatic moment that will magically make sense of the human condition but, by design, that moment never comes.  That’s not what Manchester By The Sea is about.  If there is any great lesson to be found in Manchester By The Sea, it’s that life goes on.

Despite being full of funny lines, it’s a sad film but fortunately, it’s also a well-acted one.  I have to admit that I’m not as crazy about Manchester By The Sea as some of the critics who are currently declaring Manchester to be the best film of 2016 are but I can’t disagree with those who have praised Casey Affleck’s lead performance.  Lucas Hedges also does a good job as Patrick and Michelle Williams gets one revelatory scene in which she happens to randomly run into her ex-husband on the street.

As I said, I liked Manchester By The Sea but I didn’t quite love it.  It’s a well-made and well-acted film and, if it’s not as brilliant as some have claimed, it’s still worthy of respect.