By Murphy Kenefick, Columnist
Since January is usually the time when studios dump all their critically disappointing films into theaters, I would instead like to write about one of the year’s best films that still has a showtime or two: “Manchester by the Sea.” “Manchester” was written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan and features Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams and Kyle Chandler. The plot draws our attention to Affleck’s character Lee Chandler, a janitor, who is forced to return home after the death of his brother. As if dealing with his own grief and trauma wasn’t enough of a burden, he also must take care of his nephew, and his brother’s estate. The bulk of the film is the relationship that these two develop, sharing memories of the departed, attempting to console each other (usually ineffectively) in the most masculine way possible. As the nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges) attempts to retain a normal high school life with girlfriends, hockey and a band.Meanwhile, Lee grapples with tedious funeral arrangements, unwanted relatives and an estranged ex-wife. The two try to handle all of this individually, but it’s not until the end that they discover that it’s not possible to handle everything on their own.
Lonergan’s previous two films “You Can Count On Me” and “Margaret” focus on grief as well, and the long, unsatisfying consequences that accompany it. The emphasis of his films is on the miniscule progress that his protagonists make rather than any character having a big moment, which would be fairly unrealistic. Instead of succumbing to the Hollywood cliché, Lonergan makes the audience sit patiently, watching Lee sulk, stare and retreat from conflict and conversation. Lee buries the pain instead of sharing it. Affleck gives one of the best performances of the year, conveying hurt, confusion and fatigue with each glance, all the while injecting occasional humor that the script calls for to lighten the mood.
The location of Manchester, Mass. in the winter contributes so strongly to this icy, isolated character piece by making all the characters appear like islands, hoping to connect and resolve painful relationships, but never truly succeeding. Consistently throughout, there are complaints from the characters of it being cold outside, a seemingly obvious and yet recurring line … until it turns into a morbid joke, which is played for laughs. But then, in a different form, the cold becomes a breaking point for the Patrick, who crumples on the floor underneath the freezer, thinking of how his father is being preserved frozen. Without spoiling too much, everything is intentional, and while it might seem like much of the characters’ interactions are casual frivolities, it all adds up to something more, much like life itself. This blend of naturalism and grief is a tough balancing act, but in each conversation, silent pause and flashback, it all manages to coalesce into a greater whole.
I had the privilege of seeing the European premiere of this film while abroad in England last semester as part of the BFI Film Festival, and before the screening began, the cast and crew introduced it. Lonergan discussed the difficulty of bringing such a messy, personal story to screen, and that much of the cohesion is owed to his lead actors, all standing with him. On that subject, Affleck, scruffy beard and all, elaborated on how challenging his role was. By keeping everything internal, there was risk of it appearing as if he wasn’t really acting at all. He figured out how to master it though, and is now the current front-runner to win Best Actor at the Oscars this year.If I had a ballot, he would certainly be my choice.
While this film may be a heavy experience, rest assured that it is an enjoyable one, laced with humor and sharp characters, both of which makes the grief easier to bear. It truly is a moving experience, one that acknowledges and elevates. It will leave you sad of course, but hopeful too, confident that the human spirit is capable of moving past hardships and into some semblance of relief.
BONUS POINTS: Lonergan’s cameo
NEGATIVE POINTS: I honestly can’t think of anything.
4.5 of 5 Stars