Movie Review - Manchester By the Sea

The National Board of Review has named this movie the Best Film of 2016. NBR also gave it awards for Best Actor for Casey Affleck, Breakthrough Performance (Male) for Lucas Hedges and Best Original Screenplay for Kenneth Lonergan.

It was nominated for four Gotham Awards, including Best Feature. Affleck won Best Actor there. It was also nominated for five Spirit Awards, including Best Feature and Best Editing. The likelihood that it could get Oscar nominations in those same five categories at the 89th Academy Awards is a strong possibility.

Casey Affleck (The Assassination of Jesse James and Gone Baby Gone) stars as Lee Chandler, a handyman in Boston who is living a very lonely and seemingly frustrated or bitter life. He has to do repair work in a series of apartment buildings and he doesn't really interact with the tenants well, if at all. One night at a bar, he blows off a girl who perhaps shows a passing interest in him. He then intentionally picks a fight with a guy there for no reason, and it's a wonder why. He just seems antisocial, aggressively so at times, and the movie is about explaining why he is this way and if he can change from it.

Lucas Hedges (The Slap and The Zero Theorem) co-stars as Patrick, the nephew of Lee. He's 16. He's in a rock band. He plays ice hockey. He likes to fish and sail. He has two girlfriends. He seems like a regular teenager. The twist is that his father has just died. His father is Joe, played by Kyle Chandler (Carol and The Wolf of Wall Street). Aside from one brief moment regarding the refrigerator, Patrick barely acts like his father died. He's more concerned with getting sex from the one of his two girlfriends who hasn't given him any yet.

At first, I was reminded of the TV series Buffy, the Vampire Slayer and the episode titled "The Body" where the entire hour was dedicated to the whole cast handling the death of a person. Each one deals with the grief and the loss, and it's all about how each character reacts. This movie starts out like that. There's even a similar scene where Buffy has to go to the school of her teenage sister, Dawn, and tell her the news that their mom has died. The scene is filmed in wide-shot where we don't hear the audio but we see Dawn's reaction to the news. Here, writer-director Kenneth Lonergan has Lee go to the hockey practice of Patrick to tell the news of Joe's death. The scene is filmed in wide-shot where we also don't hear the audio but we see Patrick's reaction.

Patrick's reaction is not as big as Dawn's reaction to her mom's death, which might speak to the relationship that Patrick had with Joe. This begs the question as to why Lonergan never really shows the relationship between Patrick and Joe. This film is built on flashbacks to when Joe was still alive, so we can see him in action in certain situations. Yet, none of those flashbacks illustrate the relationship between Patrick and Joe that give us any idea as to why Patrick is rather nonchalant about his father's passing. Maybe it's a commentary on how boys are in this area of New England.

Maybe, Lonergan's point is that in reality unlike shows such as Buffy, the Vampire Slayer there are no scenes where people crawl into a ball and cry. Maybe, in reality, people just go on with their lives. However, Lee can't simply go on. In his brother's will, Joe made arrangements for Lee to move from Boston to his hometown of Manchester, so that he could be the legal guardian of Patrick.

Unfortunately, Patrick's mom Elise, played by Gretchen Mol (Boardwalk Empire and Mozart in the Jungle), had substance abuse problems and separated from Joe. She got her life together, but it was telling that she wasn't put in Joe's will. Lonergan only gives us one scene with her and the movie suffers for it. One look on Joe's face in one moment is all that is needed, but she's in a new relationship with Jeffrey, played by Matthew Broderick, which gets the shortest of short shrift here. Broderick has been in all of the films directed by Lonergan, but his presence here is only quizzical and questionable as it is brief.

In the end, none of that matters because the centerpiece is Affleck's performance. At first, he's just a man trying to deal with the conflict within himself of wanting to avoid the pain from his past and the reminders of it that come with being in this town of Manchester. He has the conflict of this responsibility of being the legal guardian of his nephew and wanting to honor his brother's wishes but not wanting to be anywhere near this place. He carries the look of devastation and confusion. He cares for and loves his nephew, but Patrick is like an anchor keeping him in Manchester when he'd rather avoid that town.

Michelle Williams (Brokeback Mountain and Blue Valentine) also co-stars as Randi, the ex-wife of Lee. The reasons that force Lee to leave don't compel her to leave. She stays in Manchester. It's a wonder as to why that is. Besides being the wife and mother of Lee's children, we don't get much about who she is or what she does.

The movie essentially has two tragedies. One is Joe's death, the result of congenital heart disease. The second tragedy is a surprise that's revealed in the middle of the film. The movie focuses more on the surface with Joe's death when in reality it should have focused on the tragedy that was bubbling underneath. The one on top obscures the one on bottom. Joe's death is almost superfluous to the core emotions that this movie wants to expose. It makes the movie more about Lee and Patrick, which is fine, but the better film is between Lee and Joe.

Rated R for language throughout and some sexual content.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 17 mins.


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