Is there a direct antonym for the term nostalgia? If not, I’d like to submit a new word for that purpose. Lonergania: To look back on the past not with fondness or a desire to return, but with deep pain and unease. That’s exactly what director Kenneth Lonergan explores in his film Manchester by the Sea. The picture is a mix of devastating tragedy and sharp comedic moments that either work or don’t depending on the scene. It’s a bruising experience, filled with an emotional richness that achieves the goal for which all great art should strive – uncovering a fundamental truth of the human experience.
Manchester by the Sea centers on Lee Chandler, a brooding handyman living a solitary existence in Boston. Lee must suddenly return to his hometown when his brother, Joe, dies of congestive heart failure. When Lee reads Joe’s will, he discovers he is now the sole guardian of Joe’s 17-year-old son, Patrick. The bulk of the film deals with both Lee and Patrick coming to terms with this new arrangement. Interspersed throughout are eloquently incorporated flashbacks that reveal Joe’s original diagnosis as well as an unspeakable catastrophe involving Lee’s own family.
Lonergan and his editor, Jennifer Lame, formally explore this anti-nostalgia theme by abruptly taking us in and out of the flashback segments of the story. There are no wistful dissolves or fades here. Blunt smash cuts take us directly from the present story to as far as a decade into the past. It can be jarring at first, but once you have your bearings, this technique accentuates the fact that the events of the past aren’t something Lee cherishes. His memories are painful and inform the bitter and hard man he’s become.
Lonergan – originally a playwright – has a knack for creating authentic, real-life scenes and situations, often with a palpable awkwardness. His shooting style reinforces this verisimilitude. Lonergan and his editor let interactions play out long past when an ordinary filmmaker would cut them off. Excruciating silences heighten every pained conversation. At one point, Lee begrudgingly agrees to spend some time with (one of) Patrick’s girlfriend’s mother(s) in her living room so that Patrick can get some action upstairs while the two teenagers “study.” Lee can’t bring himself to make banal small talk, though, so the whole charade crumbles. And as the audience, we feel every aching second.
The humor Lonergan interjects is hit or miss. One scene involves Patrick visiting his mother, Elise (played by Gretchen Mol), for the first time in ten years, and it’s bitterly funny. Lee drops Patrick off to have lunch with Elise – a recovering alcoholic – and her fiancé, Jeffrey. Patrick is weirded out by his mother’s born-again Christian rigidness. She insists that he also say “Amen” at the end of Jeffrey’s prayer over the meal. Matthew Broderick delivers a delightfully oddball performance as Jeffrey, and he maximizes the ten or so minutes he’s on screen.
The moments of levity that don’t work as well come in the middle of deeply painful exchanges. They throw the dramatic arc off-kilter in a way that gives the scene an unsatisfying quality. Early in the film, Patrick and Lee are parked in front of the hospital, having a serious conversation about whether or not Patrick wants to see his father’s body in the morgue. Lee implores Patrick to make a decision, and Patrick blurts out, “Let’s just go,” meaning he wants to get it over with, and see the body. As he says this, he opens the car door, sticking his leg out. Lee has misunderstood, putting the car in drive and stepping on the accelerator. It’s an odd direction to go with the scene, but, just like in life, sometimes these sorts of things happen.
The most crushing thing about Manchester by the Sea are the performances, given by an ensemble cast of unbelievable talent. Casey Affleck simmers as Lee, when he isn’t boiling over to punch a barfly or a window. Over the course of the film, we learn about one devastating night that ruined not only Lee’s life, but also the life of his now-ex-wife, Randi. Michelle Williams gives a shattering performance as Randi, a woman left broken because of Lee’s actions. The entirety of Manchester by the Sea turns on one heartbreaking scene in which Randi confronts Lee, and attempts to make peace with him after years of painful recriminations. Williams’ work in this moment is the stuff of awards show clips; the wounded vulnerability she displays is shockingly honest.
Lucas Hedges gives a star-making turn as Patrick, an adolescent on the cusp of adulthood whose world is turned upside down when his father dies, and his uncle threatens to move him hundreds of miles from the only home he’s ever known. Manchester by the Sea is Lee’s story, but Patrick’s own grief and confusion feels just as important. Lonergan has written fully developed characters that feel like they have a life beyond what’s written on the page.
The emotions the film explores are real, and it does get to a fundamental truth about how painful life can be. Those aren’t easy things to explore, and it’s a wonder when art can get that close to a piece of the human experience. Still, Manchester by the Sea left me a little cold. Maybe I’m more comforted by nostalgia, an emotion this movie has no interest in exploring. It’s diametrically opposed to Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women, a film I felt much more emotionally connected to. Both movies are heartfelt in their own way, but there is a warmth radiating from Women that’s missing in Manchester. It’s still a great achievement, though, and one worth remembering many years from now.
Why it got 3.5 stars:
- Manchester by the Sea is a brutal, honest bit of filmmaking. As good as it is, though, I felt a little emotionally distant from it. I also found the moments of comedy uneven. When they worked, they worked well, but the moments that didn't derailed the dramatic arc of the scene.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- I mainly stick to the movie itself in my reviews, but there was something outside of Manchester by the Sea that I felt strongly needed to be addressed. Casey Affleck is considered all but a complete lock to win the Best Actor Oscar for his performance as Lee. If the human being Casey Affleck existed in a vacuum, and the only thing we needed to consider was just what happens on screen, yes, by all means, he would deserve it without reservation. His performance is amazing. Casey Affleck does not exist in a vacuum, though, and if his past real-life actions don't keep him from enjoying fame and accolades, the least I can do is call out those actions here. Two different women accused and sued Affleck in civil court for sexual harassment in 2010. The details are disturbing, to say the least, and they are excellently detailed here. The most troubling thing to me is that Affleck refuses to take any responsibility publicly, even though he settled the suits out of court. No person should be defined by one action, especially if that person displays genuine remorse. That's not the case here, and sexual harassment is something that shouldn't be ignored. Just like the probability that Woody Allen is a rapist colors every film of his that I watch, what I know about Affleck makes me think maybe one of the other actors nominated should take home the prize.