Release: 15th May 2017
Format: BR / DVD / DGTL
After the death of his older brother Joe, Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is shocked that Joe has made him sole guardian of his teenage nephew Patrick. Taking leave of his job as a janitor in Boston, Lee reluctantly returns to Manchester-by-the-Sea, the fishing village where his working-class family has lived for generations. There, he is forced to deal with a past that separated him from his wife, Randi (Michelle Williams), and the community where he was born and raised.
Life can be hAHd, especially for a lonely Bostonian handyman. Life can be even hAHdAH when you are a lonely Bostonian handyman whose beloved brother has just died and you are left in the custody of his teenage son. Manchester By The Sea has all the trimmings and setup of a heartwarming comedy that, in his heyday, the likes of Adam Sandler may once have made. Instead, in the hands of critical darling Kenneth Lonergan quickly becomes a weighty yet sincere look at the impact grief can have on the human experience. Sorry Rob Schneider, back to the broom cupboard with you.
One of the most immediate and endearing qualities of the film is its Boston spirit; that on-the-nose-no-hard-feelings-up-yours-buddy-working-hero-atmosphere that has long been indicative of America’s home of the freedom front. Watching Casey Affleck’s Lee Chandler mercilessly wade through piss, crap and insults as a daily grind is hilarious, telling, and – in retrospect – heartbreaking to watch. It is a microcosm for a film that flits between funny and sad on the turn of a dime. Lonergan’s brilliant script does this time and again, like the moment it twists an emotional breakdown for Patrick in to a telling yet ridiculously funny one liner for Lee. Moments that should be poetic are often undercut by failure and the absurd. Characters talk over each other at inopportune times, grand displays fall flat, and things that would conventionally hit emotive highs in classical cinema are torn down and trodden underfoot. From suicide to shouting at strangers, not a single moment to undercut the poetry is wasted.
But the film is by no means perfect. Its narrative is, at times, painfully predictable, and very few characters outside the main players feel fully formed. Women are either loud and brash or quiet and ditsy, while the men are either emotional cripples or borderline idiots. Lee’s path of self-destruction feels clichéd, yet one might argue, true to form. And in spite of his Oscar win, Affleck’s performance feels so nuanced it borders on comatosed.
There is a lot to love about Manchester by the Sea, but there is also a lot about it you will forget. It is not a lasting experience, but definitely one you would take time and again. It is a film that shares a biology with the works of Alexander Payne and early Cameron Crowe, but one that tries hard to sit on the more muted end of that spectrum. There are no scenes of great change, no running to right a wrong at the last minute, but it still ends with a definite sense of a journey taken and a life forever changed.
It is a rare yet happy moment when such a expressively complicated film such as this garners so much attention. It sends a message that not all Oscar films have to be loud passionate howls at the moon, and also says that quieter stories are ripe for the telling. Even so, they still have to be very much hAHd hitting.
Film Grade: B
The package on offer here is as depressing as the journey the film follows. A glorified press kit in the form of A Making Of, followed by Kenneth Lonergan’s informative yet sometime trying Commentary and a smattering of Deleted Scenes. Meh.
Special Features Grade: C-
A stunning little film that creeps up and hits you in the feels, accompanied by a minimum effort supplementary offering.
Overall Grade: B-