“Manchester by the Sea”
2 hours, 17 minutes
To absolutely no one’s surprise, Casey Affleck won Best Actor at last weekend’s Oscar ceremony, a night that ended up being more surprising than anyone expected. Affleck was the front runner from the moment his film, “Manchester by the Sea” was released, and the only people who disagreed were the disgruntled few who were tired of everyone saying how certain it was that Affleck had it in the bag.
“Manchester by the Sea” was also up for Best Picture, a prize it was much less likely to win, though give the Academy time and I’m sure they could have found a card for Warren Beatty to read with that name on it, too. Should “Manchester” have won Best Picture? No, I don’t think so, good though it is. But no one who voted for Casey Affleck threw their vote away. In this picture, he proves he’s the real deal.
In the film Affleck is Lee, a taciturn man living a solitary life in Boston, working as a handyman for a set of run-down apartments. Lee has no friends, and though he is good at his job and conscientious, not particularly popular with his boss or the tenants of the apartments where he works.
One Spring day he receives a call which sends him rushing from the city to a hospital in a small town a few hours away where his brother has had a heart attack. Arriving too late, Lee is informed his brother has died. Through a cascading series of events, Lee’s life is turned upside down as he learns that, not only is he to be the trustee of his late brother’s estate, but that he is to be the guardian of his 16-year-old nephew, as well.
The boy, Patrick, played by Lucas Hedges in a performance that is guaranteed to get him more work, is both fragile and hard, emotional and shut off. In other words, a typical 16-year-old. Lee tries to fight his responsibility, though eventually giving in to his basic decency. But this town, Manchester-by-the-Sea, is more than just some little hamlet. It holds the key to a past that Lee would prefer remain locked tightly away.
“Manchester-by-the-Sea” is an impressive piece of writing and performance. Kenneth Lonergan, who also directed the film, was awarded Best Original Screenplay at the Oscars, a designation I can heartily agree with. Lonergan takes a situation that could easily have turned positively maudlin and imbues it with such reality.
It helps that he has some marvelous actors to work with. Michelle Williams was nominated for what is a pretty small role, but which she nevertheless fills with a life’s worth of pain and loss. She’s really something.
Lucas Hedges reminded me of nothing less than a young Matt Damon, and assuming he’s bought into this career, I can see him going far. The teenage boy he plays was so familiar, so spot on that you’d imagine he’d been acting for years.
Affleck, though. That guy. I’ve really appreciated his abilities since he played Robert Ford in “The Assassination of Jesse James,” but this film is where he really brings it all to bear. It’s an interesting performance, very insular and closed off, but you never doubt the emotion Lee’s trying to keep bottled up.
What makes “Manchester” such an impressive film is the level of truthfulness that Lonergan is able to achieve. These days, reality and authenticity are somewhat easier to achieve on the surface simply because of the technology. Digital cameras, the use of non-actors, found-footage – it’s all designed to make you feel like you’re just peeking in on actual events.
But real writing, real nuanced performances, that’s what Lonergan uses to achieve that grand reality, where you get lost in the story without forgetting that you’re actually out at the movies. It’s just the right balance of artifice and veracity. That’s not to say that “Manchester-by-the-Sea” is the best movie I saw all year, or that it was the most satisfying, but it did have the best performances. I missed “Moonlight,” the film that eventually won Best Picture, so I can’t say for sure, but the acting would have to have been pretty phenomenal to beat the work done in this film.
I really like “Manchester-by-the-Sea,” but I can’t say I loved it. That’s not a fault of the film, however, as much as it is my dissatisfaction at the way things work out, or don’t, for that matter. It’s not a spoiler to say that an indie film doesn’t end the way you want it to – that’s kind of their stock in trade, but when you’ve invested two hours in a group of characters, and when they’re as well done as these are, you want everything to work out in the end.
That’s not necessarily life, though. If we’re lucky, we can learn that hard lesson in the safe confines of a movie theatre instead of on the very real streets of our own hometown.
“Manchester-by-the-Sea” is rated R for language, brief violence, mature themes, and sexual situations involving teens.
Chris Jenness is an art teacher, freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.