Manchester by the Sea

November 27, 2016 at 9:41 am | Posted in 2016 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ½

As we head into the thick of the holiday season (read the Oscar season), somber character studies start piling up like gifts faster than I can open them. I find no story more moving than one that tries to explore how real people deal with life, how we are strong and weak and succeed and fail, all at the same time. Here we have Lee Chandler returning to the town he has run away from in order to deal with a death and his teenage nephew. Stories like this work best when they remain small in scope and allow all the heavy lifting to be done by the actors. There is nothing flashy here, nothing that feels forced or unrealistic. In fact, I noticed several moments where another film might have gone for sentimentality but writer/director Kenneth Lonergan (“You Can Count on Me,” “Gang of New York”) pulled back each time. Instead, we get a film that is quiet, like its frozen landscape, but is crackling underneath with all the layers of grief. There is numbness and a biting, brittle sort of humor just under that, and then anger and deep sadness beneath both of those. These characters have such depth that all of those feelings can be seen all the time; even when they laugh (and the film is quite funny) it comes from pain. The story primarily revolves around the relationship between Lee and his nephew, played by Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges, respectively. Affleck is nothing like his older brother as an actor, in terms of pacing, cadence and energy. Perhaps as a result, he has had a difficult time finding his footing in Hollywood. His style of acting reminds me much more of his brother-in-law, Joaquin Phoenix, who I could have easily seen play this same role. Affleck gave what may finally be his breakout performance as he fully inhabits the shattered Lee. He is a man scarcely holding himself together who is now asked to do this big thing. The power of this film is in watching how hard he tries to do it. There is tremendous beauty in watching this suffering man trying to be brave. Hedges (who has had mostly small roles in films like “Moonrise Kingdom”) is also fantastic, as is the entire supporting cast, most of whom only have small roles. The always amazing Michelle Williams (“My Week with Marilyn,” “Blue Valentine”) is hardly on screen but her character feels completely real, none-the-less. The most powerful scene of the film comes between her and Affleck and it devastates. The story is built on a grand metaphor: as we wait for the frozen ground to thaw enough to bury a body over the course of the film, we are also waiting for people to thaw and other ghosts to be buried. But, I warn you, don’t expect pat answers or comfortable resolutions. The journey this film, and these actors, takes us on feels always, painfully, just like grief in the real world.


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