Oscar season shines light on all kinds of filmmaking. Erm, ok, it tends to shine light on a particular type of filmmaking. You might even say that some films are made specifically with the intent of attracting Academy Award attention. Kenneth Lonergan‘s Manchester by the Sea, however, is not one of them. It fits the bill, but this is a film made with necessities of the heart, not calculation of the head.
The Manchester of Massachusetts, USA doesn’t seem to have much in common with its UK counterpart (aside from looking rather cold). It is, true to its name, by the sea – quiet and placid, with a tight knit community that knows all too much of its residents’ secrets.
For janitor Lee (Casey Affleck), Manchester holds a particularly haunting past, one he’s since tried to flee. But when his older brother dies of a longstanding heart condition and leaves 16-year-old son Patrick (Lucas Hedges) in his care, Lee must return to his personal ghost town to confront his past and reassess his future.
This is realist filmmaking at its finest. Though the timeline is non-linear, it occurs in such a way as you might recall past events while talking to a friend. The camera angles aren’t fancy, nor the dialogue or set design. This is less about the theatrics and more about the emotion that lies, raw and unapologetic, at the heart of this story. And boy, is it sad. Tears fall easily when the subject matter hits close to home for the majority.
I say this film is without the theatrics and melodrama – the exception being its music. Loud, unapologetic organ and violin, in-your-face to the point of being distracting. “Why is this incessant noise blaring? Doesn’t it know people’s lives are falling apart?” I asked myself, seconds before one of the more heartbreaking moments played out and shocked me deeply. I later thought that more ‘appropriately sad’ music would actually cheapen it, and contrarily take away from that raw emotion the film so expertly conveys.
Affleck is a wonder in this role. You’d never doubt that he’d suffered such trauma in his own life if it weren’t suggested otherwise. There’s a grim humour in the way he plays Lee (a scene with a frozen chicken springs to mind), a dry kind of satire that’s funny even though we’re aware it acts as a thin veil to his grief. Hedges is great but only within the limits of his fairly one-dimensional character. I get that the intention was to go against the grain with a bereaved teen who doesn’t go off the rails, but I felt we didn’t get the chance to delve deep enough into how he feels about this life-changing event. Michelle Williams as Lee’s ex-wife is sparingly used but memorably effective.
It has its flaws; it’s 15-20 minutes too long and sometimes feels like its playing it safe. But Manchester by the Sea connects on a level rarely experienced, and that is something to be admired.