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Review: Manchester By The Sea – “A sprawling emotional mini-epic”

During last week’s Golden Globe Awards, when referring to Manchester By The Sea, one of the evening’s multi-nominated contenders in the drama categories, this year’s host Jimmy Fallon relied on the recurring joke that it was a depressing film. In fairness, this harrowing family drama is not exactly a walk in the sun but Kenneth Lonergan’s third outing as a director is actually an emotional powerhouse that finds humour within the dark and often bleak circumstances at play. After all, life is a tragicomedy and in the spirit of his cinematic style that always strives to convey a genuine portrait of life, the filmmaker captures lighter moments that feel relevant to the characters’ arcs and never give the slightest impression of being contrived. At the same time, the overwhelming tragedy at the core of the narrative never turns into bait for manipulative melodrama, inspiring a poignant reflection on whether it’s possible to cope at all with incommensurable grief.

It’s hard to believe that Manchester By The Sea is only the third feature film directed by Lonergan after his breakthrough debut, You Can Count On Me (2000), earned him an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay. Yet those five-six years stuck in post-production and the legal disputes regarding the final cut of his second feature, Margaret (2011), must have certainly affected his decision of taking some distance from the Hollywood machine. Originally a celebrated playwright whose breakthrough piece, This Is Our Youth, dates back to 1996, Lonergan’s character-focused scripts are his trademark and Manchester By The Sea is the ultimate affirmation of a writer who effortlessly captures each of his characters’ voices in distinct fashion and seems to have a particular flair for family dramas that center around teenagers or young adults.

Set in the small Massachusetts coast town from the film’s title, this is the story of Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), a janitor/handyman who now lives in Quincy but returns to his hometown upon the sudden and premature death of his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) due to a heart attack. He’s the only direct family member left and so has to take care of the funeral and of putting his late brother’s unfinished business in order. What Lee doesn’t expect though is to have been chosen as legal guardian of his teenage nephew Patrick (outstanding newcomer Lucas Hedges), given that the boy’s estranged mother is out of the picture. Lee is stunned by the news, as he feels completely inadequate for the delicate task but it’s not for the apparent reasons the film’s beginning seems to suggest.

When we first meet Lee and get a glimpse of his solitary bachelor’s life in Quincy before he gets the dreading phone call, we get a sense that this quiet, reserved man may be just one of those underachievers who couldn’t be bothered aiming for more than a daily routine of humbling manual labour and drunken bar brawls. However, when summoned back home for his brother’s unfortunate passing, the situation he finds himself in progressively unearths the true reasons behind his departure and most importantly opens the Pandora’s box of his retreated psycho-emotional state. If initially Lee’s reluctance to take over guardian’s duties seems selfish and immature, as we peel layer after layer of his impenetrable armour, we’re bound to discover what compelled him to flee his hometown and why the responsibility that’s been unexpectedly bestowed upon him by his late brother has re-opened old wounds he has no clue how to mend.

Casey Affleck, a notoriously underrated actor who over the past few years has repeatedly showcased his potential in many understated performances (see The Assassination Of Jesse James and Ain’t Them Body Saints, among others) finally gets a lead role that consecrates his talent in the pantheon of great contemporary American male thespians like Matthew McConaughey and Joaquin Phoenix. The sleepwalking-through-life mask he wears throughout the film up until the inevitable catharsis, is nothing less than formidable and the level of nuance he achieves in this performance are awe-inspiring.

Everyone in the film is absolutely terrific, no matter how short their screen time is. From Michelle Williams’ intense portrayal of Lee’s ex wife to Kyle Chandler’s raw and empathetic turn in the interspersed flashbacks, this is a cast that perfectly fits Lonergan’s theatre background. Yet the stand-out performance of the film belongs to young newcomer Lucas Hedges who crafts a believable teenage character, nailing both his progressive descent into the overwhelming sense of disorientation brought by the circumstances and his desperate attempts to cling to some scraps of normality. Patrick finds solace in his teenage routines that include playing hockey, being in a punk-rock band and trying to hook up with two girls at once. His blunt commentary on his uncle’s life provides much needed humorous respite from the drama but his genuine moments of grief-stricken vulnerability are heart-wrenching.

Kenneth Lonergan is a master at handling the complexities and nuances of human emotions and here he explores grief in such an earnest and affecting manner that it’s hard not to feel for these characters. This isn’t however a cheese fest of overly abused clichés – although telling a familiar narrative, the filmmaker has crafted a sprawling emotional mini-epic that doesn’t follow Hollywood’s typical structure heading towards a predictable happy ending. Manchester By The Sea handles its themes with authenticity, capturing the essence of how other people’s life ineluctably continues after someone’s death and yet exploring the possibility that for some of us, grief might be too overwhelming to continue living and so we carry on just existing.

Manchester By The Sea is out in UK cinemas on January 13th


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