Saturday, January 28, 2017

Manchester by the Sea: Life Goes on

Every year, there's the Oscar movie I thoroughly dread having to watch, certain that it will be a depressing slog that will sap my will to live. This year, I was convinced Manchester by the Sea would be that movie, spurred on by various comments from my boss who seemed assured that I would be curled up in the fetal position once I was done watching it. Thankfully he was wrong and the critics were right - this is the best sort of film, one that contains both terrible tragedy and that foolhardy human spirit that forces characters to keep putting one foot in front of another and get on with things no matter what.

The most important thing I can do for you in this review is not give away much plot. This film has been beautifully scripted by writer-director Kenneth Lonergan and watching the story unfurl through silent moments, flashbacks, and unexpectedly humorous exchanges is one of the true cinematic pleasures you can experience this year. In broad strokes, the movie is about Lee (Casey Affleck), a janitor who lives in Boston, a loner with a drinking and anger problem, whose life is turned upside down when his brother dies and he becomes his nephew's guardian. The nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), is a 16-year-old teenage boy, who loves his uncle, is sad his dad's dead, but wants to live out his normal teenage life. And what follows for two hours is an achingly human story about this man and this boy, and how they are going to deal with their grief.

Much of the story takes place via flashbacks, treating us to wonderful performances from Kyle Chandler as Lee's brother, Joe, and the splendid Michelle Williams, who plays Lee's ex-wife, Randi. Unraveling the tragedy of Lee's backstory is the most heartbreaking part of this film, and towards the end, when Lee and Randi discuss their shared past, we get one of those indelible scenes that propel a good movie into greatness. This is the scene for which Williams and Affleck keep getting acting nominations and I defy anyone to watch it and not marvel at it. Similarly, Lucas Hedges has a scene where he has a strong reaction to a seemingly inconsequential event, and watching him and Affleck play out that moment and its aftermath is simultaneously funny, sad, loving, and real. It is the perfect embodiment of the helplessness all humans feel in the face of grief, and a reminder that oftentimes the only thing we need when dealing with such sadness is to have someone say, "I'm here."

The movie features splendid cinematography by Jody Lee Lipes with beautiful New England landscapes and moments when Lee, Joe, and Patrick are fishing on a boat and experiencing the unadulterated pleasure of being out in the ocean surrounded by the ones you love. The score by Lesley Barber is similarly spare but beautiful, never intrusive but always layering each scene with the perfect blend of emotions. I've also never felt quite so cold as I did watching these people brave the Massachusetts winter, while the Boston accents made me quite homesick for my college days. As far as I'm concerned, any movie is elevated several notches solely through the employment of some strong Bostonian accents by a bunch of brawling tough guys with extremely soft centers.

Manchester by the Sea is a sad but satisfying movie. It has moments of gut-wrenching despair but balances them with the humor and banter of everyday life. Because no matter what happens, life goes on. And while I have no idea how these characters will fare for the rest of their lives, I am so grateful I got to see how they fared over the course of this movie. 

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