Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, February 7, 2017

OSCARS 2017: Manchester by the Sea (2016)

I have no familiarity with writer/director Kenneth Lonergan. I've barely heard of “You Can Count on Me” and I only know about “Margaret” because of its troubled post-production. I'm honestly more familiar with Longergan's screenwriting credits, though its clear that “Analyze This” and “Rocky and Bullwinkle” don't represent his best work. I guess I'm just out of the loop on this one. So I couldn't approach “Manchester by the Sea” as the latest work from a major American auteur Instead, the film sounded to me like a dignified weepie, the kind of stately, restrained melodrama that sometimes catches the Academy's attention. Maybe if I was more familiar with Lonergan's work, I'd have some context. Generally speaking, however, that preconception proved right.

Lee Chandler is an all-purpose handyman living and working in a small, New England apartment building. He's a quiet, simple man. His normal day is interrupted when he receives news that his brother, Joe, has died suddenly from a preexisting heart condition. He drives up to Manchester-by-the-Sea to take care of his sixteen year old nephew Patrick and get Joe's affairs in orders. Lee is startled to discover that his brother has willed him to be the boy's caretaker. He has to struggle with what to do with the boy, a rowdy teenager disinterested in leaving his home, while also coming to grips with the tragedy in his past that still haunts him.

“Manchester by the Sea” is a film about grief and the sometimes difficult ways people react to it. When introduced, Lee Chandler is a man who barely allows himself to feel. When he hears that one of the tenants under his care is attracted to him, he awkwardly leaves the room. Anger seems to be the only emotion he's comfortable with. Fiery, random anger too, usually expressed at passing people on the street or in bars. He likes to pick fights, for barely discernible reasons. When he hear news that his brother has died, he doesn't cry or explode. He bitterly curses to himself. The story of connecting with his nephew is one of Lee coming out of his shell. It's not as trite as that sounds because the character is so far gone already. Casey Affleck's performance is astonishingly controlled. He doesn't even hint at the storm inside because Lee really is that closed off. It's a very subtle piece of acting, intuitive in its restraint.

It's only midway through that the exact details of Lee's tragedy is revealed. Lonergan smartly parses out the flashbacks in the first half. We get peaks at the life Lee and his brother once had. We see both the good and the bad, the arguments between spouses and the love shown for kids. So when the tragedy comes, we feel it. That the horrifying act is so senseless, makes it hit even harder. From this point on, we're just waiting for Lee to have his emotional breakthrough. This happens during a tear strewn reunion with his ex-wife on a bridge. That one moment is what got Michelle Williams her Best Supporting Actress nod. Her role is otherwise small and pushed aside. Even then, Affleck's Lee holds off. Maybe the film holds off like that too much.

Truthfully, a big problem I had with “Manchester by the Sea” is that Patrick is kind of a tool. His jockish pursuit of getting laid, even in the aftermath of his father's death, makes him seem like a total asshole. That he's screwing around with two separate girls doesn't help. But, okay, I get it. Teenage boys are supposed to be tools. His reaction to his father's passing is a little too muted as well. Okay, I get this too. “Manchester” is a film all about the varied ways people react to death. Yes, Patrick does eventually break down. Hearing his father's body will be in a freezer until spring disturbs him. After some frozen meat tumbles out of the fridge, he starts to weep uncontrollably. I love that moment, which understands how little things can remind you of big stuff. Once again, the film pulls back after that, Patrick reeling in his anxiety attack too quickly.

Honestly, the best moments in “Manchester by the Sea” might be the less dramatic ones. Lonergan's film has a good grasp on everyday life, finding humor in the way people communicate. A likable moment concerns Lee and Patrick trying to remember where they park the car, while walking through a chilly winter. After Joe's death, Patrick has friends over who have a passionate conversation about the merits of “Star Trek.” The dinner between Patrick, his estranged mom, and her hyper Christian new husband feels realistically awkward. The moment when Patrick lets his girlfriend drive his dad's boat is a refreshingly uplifting moment. Too much of “Manchester by the Sea” is characterized by Lee's icy moods, hard to penetrate or relate to. The film is deeply humanistic yet weirdly at arms' length. “Moonlight,” for example, did a better job of getting the audience to relate to an emotionally distant protagonist.

“Manchester by the Sea” is this year's “Spotlight,” though it's nowhere near as good as that movie. (It also lacks that movie's socially conscious importance.) I mean it's the grown-up drama, an understated film containing big emotion that will probably seem like the most serious, mature pick for Academy voters. With this in mind, it might yank the Best Picture award away from “La La Land,” though that would still surprise me. Don't get me wrong. “Manchester” is a good movie, with Affleck especially deserving the accolades he's received. Yet the film struck me as a bit too chilly for its own good. [7/10]

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