Despite allegations of past sexual assault swirling around Casey Affleck, he picked up the Best Actor Oscar for Manchester By The Sea, with Kenneth Lonergan also winning an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Judging purely from what’s on the screen, you can see why they won, as Affleck puts in an extremely good performance, working from a nicely nuanced script which prizes emotion but tries to avoid cliché.
Affleck is Lee Chandler, who’s working as a janitor in Boston. He drinks too much, barely socialises and gets in trouble for being rude to tenants. He gets a call to say that his brother has died and so he heads to his hometown of Manchester, Massachusetts. Lee also knows he’ll have to help look after his teenage nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges) but isn’t prepared for that fact his brother has named him as Patrick’s guardian, something he doesn’t feel vaguely able to handle.
Lee isn’t keen to stay in Manchester, due to past tragedy and bad feeling towards him that still lingers in the air, but Patrick has a whole life he doesn’t want to leave behind. While Lee doesn’t want to completely abandon his nephew, it becomes increasingly difficult to see a way for them to both get what they need. There’s also Lee’s ex-wife, Randi (Michelle Williams), who isn’t sure what to think about the return of her ex.
From that summary, you might think you can work out exactly what’s going to happen in Manchester By The Sea, with a man and his rough-around-the-edges man is challenged by crisis and forced to become a better person. However, Kenneth Longergan’s script is far subtler than that, painting a picture of a totally broken man, who’s barely able to function and for whom getting through life is a sheer act of will. He genuinely isn’t ready or prepared to look after a wilful 16-year-old, and not due to selfishness. Here, a turnaround with Lee suddenly getting over his past and completely stepping up to the plate may be far more than can be asked for. Indeed, baby steps would be an achievement.
While he does bad things, Lee is not a bad man. He wants to do his best, but doesn’t react to things in expected ways, largely because he is barely holding his existence together and constantly feels the pressure of being back in a place of extremely bad memories. Indeed, it’s only when the whole mosaic of what’s happened both in the past and present come together that you realise how much effort it’s taken him to try to help out his nephew, even if his efforts would often appear to an outsider as if he’s barely trying or actively failing.
As well as being a fascinating portrait of a broken man, the movie also invests time and effort exploring Patrick. Lucas Hedges deservedly got an Oscar nomination for playing the teenager. It’s a deceptively tough role – a teenager dealing with the death of his father and an uncertain future, but without the gnashing of teeth and wailing cinema would normally go for. He’s basically a good kid, but can also be a bit of a pain in the ass, with sports, girls, sex and his band often taking precedence over everything else. That leaves Hedges having to build a sympathetic portrait of the interior of Patrick with only occasional moments of straightforwardly expressed emotion (including a surprisingly powerful and oddly humorous scene involving a frozen chicken).
Likewise, while she doesn’t have a lot of screentime, Michelle Williams once more shows what a powerful actress she is as Randi. She has an incredible ability for displaying emotional honesty and eliciting empathy from an audience, whether it’s the happiness of domestic simplicity or complete, heartbroken collapse.
Some may be frustrated that this is a film more like real life, where things can’t be neatly tied up, people can’t change as much as we might like, and pain lives on no matter how much time has passed. That said, despite the dark and difficult themes, it’s not a movie that’s as miserable as it might sound. It finds humour in many of its situations, and ensures that irrespective of what’s going on, you’re never in doubt that that love exists between these characters, even when they can’t always be what the other person needs.
Overall Verdict: An affecting, beautifully acted, directed and written movie about the messy world of broken lives and people trying to do their best for one another after the world has already beaten them.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac