Silver Screen: Manchester by the Sea ****1/2
Every year there’s a major awards contender or two that seems so inevitably depressing that it’s finer qualities are best regarded from afar. (“I hear that’s really good. Yeah, everybody says so. Anyway, two tickets to Boner Cops II, please.”) Seeing it feels like doing homework for a masochism class.
Without the kind of cultural imperative that compels audiences to excellent but excruciating movies like Schindler’s List and Twelve Years a Slave, these smaller-scale dramas are often talked about a lot more than they’re actually seen.
It’s understandable. It’s Friday night, you want to have fun, and the first Boner Cops was surprisingly well-written.
But don’t let this be the case with Manchester by the Sea, an elegant, emotionally astute, subtly transgressive— and yes, a tough movie. Kenneth Lonergan’s portrait of grief and forgiveness isn’t a relentless bummer, though, because it’s far too nuanced for that.
Casey Affleck stars as Lee, a humble, helpful building superintendent in Boston whose silence is accountable to more than just shyness. Something blazes behind his stoic gaze, flaring out at inappropriate moments or burning itself out in fights he picks with strangers in bars.
Lee is called back to his coastal New England hometown, Manchester by the Sea, following the death of his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler). Joe’s sudden passing essentially orphans Lee’s nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges), whose high-strung mother (Gretchen Mol) abandoned the family years prior.
Patrick is seventeen, a little more than a year away from graduating from high school. He’s too immature to leave to his own devices but too old to go into the foster system. The only plausible temporary solution is that Lee move back to Manchester to take care of him.
At this point, writer / director Lonergan begins to slyly break away from dramatic convention.
This kind of drama has a fairly familiar arc. Loner is forced to take care of child, child defies but then comes to rely on the loner, loner has epiphany in which he realizes he must open himself up to people for the benefit of himself and the child. Usually he gets laid along the way, most likely by a woman tangentially involved with the child’s caregiving. (Big Daddy, About a Boy, Curly Sue, No Reservations, Uncle Buck, Life as We Know It, et cetera)
Playwright Lonergan’s simple but singular approach is to take that dramatic setup, but then imagine how it might happen without the familiar emotional turns or the guarantee of catharsis. He strips away the dramatic tropes, especially the epiphany to which this sort of movie is supposed to build. The result is disorienting. Without the cinematic mile-markers we’re so used to guiding us through the story, it feels as though anything might happen. It could break open into a lighthearted indie dramedy, or something even more tragic could happen, almost at any second.
This tremendous uncertainty gives Lonergan a kind of dramatic power over the audience that he wields without abusing. This isn’t an instance of audience castigation, like one of Michael Haneke’s dark auteurial scoldings. Lonergan just refuses to hold your hand as you pass through fraught territory.
He employed this same approach in his second movie, the divisive Margaret, which similarly took a familiar premise— girl witnesses a life-changing bus accident— and then scours away the dramatic conventions until we can see the scenario in its true form. Margaret was, however, too dour and frustrating to succeed, whereas Lonergan finds a near-perfect equilibrium in Manchester by the Sea.
Just as suffering is inevitable, so too is comedy. In a flashback scene, the excellent Gretchen Mol, in one of her handful of minutes of screentime, storms out of a hospital room when her husband Joe is cracking wise with Lee after an earlier medical episode. Gallows humor is a staple of the family, and these hard-drinking east-coast boys know how to have a good time. Patrick has inherited the family’s sardonic wit, which he puts to use in banter with Lee and uses to get laid with his small cadre of high-school admirers. Patrick trying to sleep with a girl the night of his father’s funeral is the kind of grim, funny, sad, true moment at which Lonergan excels.
All that said: Manchester by the Sea is undeniably heavy. Because whatever progress Lee is making with Patrick, there’s still the matter of that fire behind his eyes, the reason he’s living alone in Boston away from the rest of his family. The details of this are revealed during a series of devastating flashabacks to his life with his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams). The revelation of Lee’s great shame might have been the movie year’s most powerful gut-punch were it not shortly followed by a reunion between he and Randi. It’s the best single scene from any film from 2016.
Yes, there is a toll to pay in Manchester by the Sea. It’s worth it for Lonergan’s masterful dialogue, which is somehow realistic and lyrical at the same time. It’s worth it for great performances by Affleck, Williams, and Hedges, all of whom deserve their awards-season praise, but also fantastic turns in smaller roles by Mol, Chandler, and C.J. Wilson.
Don’t be wary, don’t put it off. See it.
If you don’t like it, next weekend I’ll take you to Boner Cops.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@RealBryanMiller.