Not exactly a feel good film for the Christmas Holiday, but an impressive family film about the ties that bind us and the fact that they do so in multiple ways. There are many, many things to admire about this film, from the sterling performances to the complex way in which the story unfolds and most especially for the ambiguous ending that resolves only an immediate issue but not the deeper needs of the main character. Manchester bu the Sea is a well made film that is worth the pain that you sometimes have to get through to be able to understand the characters.
Casey Affleck has been a solid actor for years. His side kick roles in the Ocean’s 11 films show that he can be comedic when called upon, but he also has serious dramatic chops. Earlier this year he was quietly heroic in “The Finest Hours“. In this film he is also quiet, but in a much different style of performance. His character “Lee”, has a tragic background that follows him wherever he goes but most especially in his hometown. He is forced to return to “Manchester By the Sea” for another tragic passage in his life, and the confluence of the two events are enough to give anyone a depression that would feel overwhelming. That his character is able to cope to some degree is the one outward sign of inner strength. Affleck doesn’t really raise his voice often, he is not bitingly sarcastic but the audience can see that he is masking turmoil which makes it nearly impossible for him to manage the family obligation he finds himself in.
I have not seen director Kenneth Lonergan’s second feature but his first was the affecting and slow moving “You Can Count on Me”, which came out sixteen years ago. This movie does seem to fit into his sweet-spot, a family drama with imperfect people, taking their time to try and work out their problems. There are several wordless moments in the film where the actors perform in an almost classic silent film manner. Watching Afflect’s face conveys ninety percent of what we need to know in most scenes. There are instances where you can see his self loathing percolating to the surface just before the bubble pops and a moment of catharsis, which is even more damaging to him, takes over. The will it takes to hold things together is substantial. There is plenty of angst to go around but there are also moments of human connection that are heartfelt and sometimes amusing. The contentious relationship Lee has with his nephew Patrick is punctuated by love and off beat humor. Lucas Hedges plays Patrick as a self confident but needy adolescent. Sometimes he needs to be smothered with attention and other times he needs to be left alone. Of course Lee usually chooses wrong, but when he does get it right, there is a sense of hopefulness that lingers long enough to make the story bearable.
The structure of the film is similar to a second film I will be commenting on today. There are contemporary events and then there are several flashbacks that occur in no particular order which trace back the history of our characters. Lee’s guilt cannot allow him to move forward but moving forward is what is needed for Patrick. I never found the narrative confusing and the jumps back and forth in the story often set the tone for an upcoming incident in a way that would have required a huge amount of exposition if the story were told differently. This is a film without a clear ending, but it does let us know that the path to the future is not entirely bleak.
There are some secondary characters that intrude on the story and did little to advance the plot such as it is. Patrick’s estranged Mother briefly returns to his life but it is a dead end that only shows how essential Lee is to getting things right for Patrick. The uncomfortable lunch that Patrick and his Mother and her new boyfriend share, is an emotional dry well. On the other had, the scenes with Lee’s ex-wife, Randi, played by Michelle Williams, are in fact heart breaking. She wants him to find the forgiveness that he cannot give himself and her own spirit is limited because he can’t. Every family has bumps in the road, some derail the family entirely, this is a film about two of those kinds of events and how they intertwine. This is a great movie that is hard to experience but has at it’s core an honest portrayal of the sort of depression that is based on real life and not just on manufactured emotions as you will sometimes find in other films.