Leading up to the Oscars, I’ll be revisiting and reviewing all the Best Picture nominees. I’ll assess them on their own before bringing all the nominees together and breaking down which is truly worthy of the golden statue.
Today’s review is tale of family and grief, Manchester by the Sea.
Directed by Kenneth Lonergan
Starring Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Lucas Hedges
Plot: An uncle is asked to take care of his teenage nephew after the boy’s father dies.
I did not see this one coming- in more ways than one.
Previously to this film, I’m a ashamed to say I wasn’t familiar with Kenneth Lonergan’s work on the screen or on the stage. I knew his film You Can Count On Me was quite beloved but I never got around to seeing it. I remember hearing rumblings about this film after it premiered at Sundance, but my interest in it stopped at Casey Affleck, who I came to know as a brilliant actor in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. When award season rolled around and the conversation picked up, it began to rise up my must-watch list. I was not prepared for how much I’d like this movie, nor to how affecting it would be.
It’s a strange feeling to consider a movie to be beautiful even after it tears your heart out. But there is a real beauty to this film and it comes from how honest and real it is in its depiction of grief. Not just grief, but inescapable loss. Even though it devastated me, I felt good for seeing something address these feelings in such a raw and true way. Lonergan has crafted an amazing script that deserves to be heralded for years to come. It’s a supremely confident work without being at all pretentious. It doesn’t take the easy dramatic leaps even when you’re sure that’s what its building to, but instead crafts a movie around the small painfully human moments amongst tragedy. In that respect, I was very surprised how genuinely funny the movie is. It understands the reality of the situation, that when someone dies, funny things don’t just stop happening. But it is all the small real moments that make this movie so extraordinary.
I can talk to much more about the film without getting into spoiler territory so let’s just dive in:
******* SPOILER WARNING*******
Addressing the house fire right away, I’ve seen some say that this is where the film lost a little of its realism and made Lee’s (Casey Affleck) tragedy a little less relatable. And yes, thankfully many of us don’t know what it feels like to have three of your children die in a fire you were largely responsible for, but Lonergan uses those small details to make it heartbreakingly relatable. Lee’s confession at the police station (a scene that will stick with me forever, I’m sure) the way be describes the events that led to his children’s death, the way he remembered halfway to the store that he forgot to put the screen on but decided it would be fine, we’ve all had moments like that. For most of us, things did turn out to be fine. Lee wasn’t so lucky. I’m so glad Lonergan chose to reveal the truth about Lee’s past in the way he did. It didn’t need to be a mystery that hung over the entire movie. We needed to know so that we understood Lee’s struggle and as soon as we find out the truth, all his behavior makes complete sense.
The character of Lee is so well-written but I can’t say enough about what Affleck brings to the role. It’s not just that it’s all bubbling under the surface and it’s him suppressing it from coming to the top, it’s how it comes to the top. It’s a performance that could unfairly be dismissed as remaining emotionless, but the emotions are all there. They’re there in his pauses, in his eyes, in the way he carries himself. It’s a very internal role and one of the best performances I have ever seen. The rest of the cast is in top form as well. Kyle Chandler’s role is small but his impact is very effective. Young Lucas Hedges plays his very difficult role wonderfully and it feels so authentic. I hesitate to say I wish Michelle Williams was in the film more. Her lingering presence makes it feel like she’s a spirit floating around the town haunting Lee.
The acting is incredibly stellar, but I have to circle back around to discuss the brilliance of Lonergan. Hearing what this film was about, I felt like I has seen this story so many times before. Lonergan makes this familiar plot his own thanks largely to his authenticity with the subject material, but also with his restraint. So many times, he resists the urge so many filmmakers would bend to and gives us only what we need to know. The reunion scene with the mother could have been so much “bigger” but Lonergan dials it back and achieves the same purpose. Similarly, we don’t need to hear Lee telling Patrick about his father dying. It’s an Oscar movie that seems allergic to “Oscar scenes”. Even the gut-wrenching meeting between Randi and Lee holds back, because we don’t need to know the horrible things Randi said to Lee, we can already imagine. This all leads to one of the simplest yet accurate descriptions of crippling grief I’ve even heard, as Lee finally admits, “I can’t beat it.”
This movie destroyed me and I love it for that. Not a scene, not a moment, no one aspect of it rang false with me. I saw this movie in the new year but if I had caught it in 2016 it would have sat comfortably at the top of my list for that year. If I were running the Oscars, this film would showered in gold statues. More importantly though, it is a movie that will stay with me in the best possible way for a long time to come.