Film Review: Buoyed by a masterful script and terrific performances, Manchester By The Sea (USA, 2016) is a powerful film

Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester By The Sea arrives in Australian cinemas this week, a year after it was the hit of Sundance and not long after it garnered an impressive six Oscar nominations. These accolades include surprise acting nods to Michelle Williams and Lucas Hedges, alongside Casey Affleck, who has already taken home a Golden Globe for his performance.

The film takes us into the life of Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), who returns to his hometown – Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts – after his brother dies, to arrange a funeral and care for his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Clearly a man trying to hide from something, Lee works as a lowly janitor in Boston, drinking (and fighting) away his problems, leading a mundane life that seems to operate as a sort of anesthesia, for reasons we later discover.

Lonergan’s screenplay peels away Lee’s story masterfully, gradually revealing the heartbreak and loss that took him away from his hometown. As he as his nephew grieve, they also have to come to terms with the fact that Lee – by request of his brother Joe (Kyle “he will always be Coach to me” Chandler) – has been unexpectedly placed as Patrick’s guardian, until he turns 18, a position he’s not immediately comfortable taking (for reasons we also later discover).

As we learn more about these characters, who are rough around the edges to say the least, from flashbacks and interactions with one and other over a cold winter, you grow to care for them. And by the time the film hits you with the biggest reveal of Lee’s past, it becomes an effective emotional exercise – as well as an example of incredible filmmaking. This is buoyed all the further by outstanding performances from the whole cast – and though Michelle Williams, who plays Lee’s ex-Wife, is only in a few scenes, it’s not surprising she secured a nomination for the role. The scenes between her and Lee are among the film’s best.

This is a powerful film, strengthened by excellent cinematography, a reserved but powerful soundtrack, terrific acting and strong direction. And its script is masterful, frolicking effortlessly between sadness and humour – which, given the subject matter, is quite the achievement. Though this review ultimately hails the film as one of the year’s finest, I do have one criticism, and it’s to do with the subject matter.

Why do we need another film about a brooding white male who deals out his unhappiness on others? Why was this story, out of all the possible stories, deemed the most important for today’s audience? And in a year where men like him have undoubtedly pushed America down a perilous path with their newly elected Commander-in-Chief, why should we care about him? He’s had a terrible run of luck, but his self-destructive behaviour has helped nobody, in a family clearly raised on a nature of poor language and manners (how hard is it to say please!?).

Some may argue that this just represents the average working class male of that region, and that cinema is there to represent every facet of our society – from the most fantastical to the most ordinary. And they’re not wrong. But from Rebel Without a Cause to *insert another movie set in Boston with miscellaneous Affleck brother here*, we’ve seen it all before. And in a year which has picked up powerful and beautiful character studies like Moonlight, the telling of important, unknown stories as in Hidden Figures, and an unapologetic, fun musical in La La Land, the aesthetically sound but thematically well trodden (even if Lonergan’s ability to avoid cliché is masterful), Manchester in the Sea feels like dated Oscar fodder.

This will not be a film for everyone, and at times it was not a film for me. But you can’t argue with its skill and the fact it is one of the most powerful and effective dramas of the year, worthy of its accolades and acclaim. You will laugh, you will cry, and though you may wonder why the story was told, you will leave the cinema having witnessed some masterful filmmaking, some terrific performances and some really cold weather.


Manchester By The Sea hits Australian cinemas today.


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Larry Heath

Founding Editor and Publisher of the AU review. You can follow him on Twitter @larry_heath or on Instagram @larryheath.

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