Star Wars may be dominating theaters, but the world still spins and awards season keeps on going. Though this appears to be another one of those bullshit award seasons in which everything is either getting a last-minute Christmas release or a full release in January following some token bullshit qualifying limited run. Luckily, there are a few exceptions, so let’s look at one of them now.
Manchester by the Sea tells the story of Lee Chandler, played by Casey Affleck. The short synopsis is that he’s a handyman working in Boston who has to go to Manchester and settle his brother’s affairs when his brother (Joe Chandler, played by Kyle Chandler) suddenly dies after years of living with chronic heart failure. But man oh man there’s a lot more going on.
To start with, we learn that Lee has an ex-wife (Randi, played by Michelle Williams) and three young children. I don’t dare spoil anything about what happened there, but suffice to say that the rest of Lee’s family is out of the picture due to unforeseen and utterly tragic circumstances. And it broke Lee to such an extent that he’s effectively dead inside. He’s completely shut himself off from everyone else — especially from women — and he seems determined to live alone and unhappy until he gradually shuffles off into the grave.
That said, it’s not like Lee is a complete vegetable. On the contrary, he’s all too eager to get drunk, start random bar fights, and mouth off to anyone who gives him trouble. Plus, he seems determined to work hard and live an honest life, even if he doesn’t aspire to anything greater than the bare minimum and he’s just going through the motions. In fact, that’s a common thread with all of these characters — all drunken, profane, short-tempered, emotionally guarded, and LOUD, yet hard-working and good-hearted (read: “good-hah-ted”, in a thick Boston accent).
This really is the main strength of the film: Its characters. We’ve got Lee as he struggles to cope with his own emotional baggage and the wreck that his life has become, on top of sorting out his brother’s affairs and figuring out how to deal with everyone around him. We’ve got Patrick (shown in varying ages, though he’s mostly played as a teenager by Lucas Hedges) — Joe’s son — who’s coping with the death of his father and the arrival of his new guardian (an unwitting and likely unqualified Lee) while also juggling school, various sports, practicing with his crappy garage band, his dad’s boating business, and two (!!) girlfriends. Then of course we have Randi, who’s struggling with the same tragedy as Lee, even if she’s ostensibly had a better time of it. The other prominent female supporting character is Joe’s ex-wife (Elise, played by Gretchen Mol), who’s desperately trying to put her own past as a raging and unstable alcoholic behind her.
Nearly all of the characters in this film are broken, volatile, and tactless in their own ways, and they all have some kind of history with each other. Though there are a few odd exceptions. Heather Burns appears in a few scenes as Jill — mother to one of Patrick’s girlfriends and a prospective love interest for Lee — and she seems level-headed enough. There’s also Matthew Broderick, who appears briefly as Elise’s strangely polite and uber-Christian fiance. It’s not much, but it’s enough to bring some variety to the proceedings and give the other characters something different to play off of.
I wouldn’t be able to say enough good things about these characters, if only so much of it was easier to express in words. The dialogue flies right off the page. Every single actor brings their A-game. Every line of dialogue is perfectly written and timed to get the biggest possible laugh or the loudest possible sobbing. The interplay between each character is phenomenal.
It’s a mercy that the movie has such strong characters, because the rest of it was just kinda… meh.
On the one hand, it’s refreshing that the film is so subtle. There are no development arcs that are put where they don’t belong or forced to fit the arbitrary running time. There are no overt themes that are pushed onto the audience in no uncertain terms. In point of fact, the film doesn’t really do anything predictable or cliched or rote.
Unfortunately, this also means a relative lack of plot structure (the awkwardly spliced flashbacks certainly don’t help). The heavy reliance on deeply implicit themes will also mean that anyone easily bored or unimpressed with the characters will be struggling to find the point in all of this. Especially since the film doesn’t really build up to anything particularly euphoric or enlightening.
For better or worse, this is a slice-of-life movie to show a few days in the life of a man who just lost his brother. Absolutely everything about this film is structured to feel as authentic as possible, and of course life is going to feel a bit more boring when there’s minimal Hollywood artifice. Yet that’s also what keeps this film interesting.
Precisely because it’s such an unusual movie populated with such unpredictable characters, there’s that much more incentive to stick around and see what happens next. Plus, the characters are all so fully-fleshed that I wanted to see the next flashback and learn more about them. Hell, even the relatively uneventful stretches do so much to put us in the headspace of these characters and let us feel as they do. It’s not that nothing happens in this movie, it’s just that this picture doesn’t try to cram as many events into two hours’ runtime as some others do. And that’s okay.
Manchester by the Sea is a low-key movie filled with high-strung characters. It’s a compelling examination of a man who’d rather die alone than inflict himself on other people (or vice versa), but the themes are implicit enough that you could probably make an argument for any number of possible messages. The film moves at a slow pace, but that helps sell the illusion that these characters are actual people, and we get that much more time to really know them. It also helps a great deal that the characters have rich and complex inner conflicts more than powerful enough to sustain the relatively placid external plot.
The script and the performances alone are worth a very strong recommendation, but there’s nothing here that really warrants a big-screen viewing. Home video is probably the way to go with this one… unless drunken and aggressive Boston Irish Catholic stereotypes aren’t really your thing, in which case there won’t be much left to see.