Manchester by the Sea is a film drama released in 2016 which focuses on family tragedy, change and personal past decisions coming to fruition later in life for better or worse. Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan it follows the plot of an estranged Uncle Lee played by Casey Affleck who returns to his childhood hometown after his brother’s unexpected heart attack and passing. He takes on the parental responsibility of his nephew and also faces some home-truths about the confusing emotional circumstances with his ex-wife Randi played by Michelle Williams. Its a film which really tries to explore the sometimes problematical moral standpoints of different personalities with the same family. How individual actions and choices made past or present can have an impact of family ties and dysfunction.
This area of theme focus is notoriously difficult in cinema to tackle because unlike idealistic romantic comedies, science fiction or the supernatural it is about the most natural form of real human behaviour and relationships in reality. Kenneth Lonergan is a film director and writer who embraces the challenge of selecting and creating reality based people stories about life. His previous film projects ‘You can count on me’ and ‘Margeret’ take in depth looks at people personally overcoming hurdles of violence, family issues, death, addiction and inner personal mental health struggle. He returns to form here with Manchester by the Sea.
Kenneth Lonergan’s approach to cinematic dramatic story telling about the harsh realities people face and endure is sincere and genuine but however also uncomfortably truthful and often bleak. he does not easily and gently guide viewers into the evenly spaced sorrows and triumphs of one main character. He uses the lead as a vessel to assess the ripple effect of situations and choices. The impact this has on a large ensemble of connected people through family, friends and intimate relationships. This is an interesting approach to drama. Viewers like to align themselves to a ‘Good Person’ or a ‘Bad Person’ for moral focus and attention. Here in Manchester by the Sea audiences have to look at several points of view of the same unexpected family tragedy. The son (nephew), ex – wife (Randi), main character Lee and local family and friends through individual flash-backs and different perceptions.
Although indeed this confuses viewers who enjoy cinema tales more traditionally neatly wrapped up, its a film which has to be commended for its reality angle of peoples journey through life.
Analyzed well by Justin Chang a film critic – Variety Magazine online
“An American filmmaker unusually attuned to the messiness and clumsiness of most everyday interaction. Lonergan steers Lee and his few remaining friends and family members through the forced awkward rites of bereavement”
There are many interesting narrative tales written cleverly with Lee’s return. The teenage nephew who is in denial and avoiding grief of his Father. He pursues two girlfriends and a music band in stereotypical teen fashion. Lee’s ex wife who is a young woman who has lost hope after she and Lee loose their children in an accidental fire. A lot of screenplays use supporting characters as for search of a better phrase ‘background noise’ to elevate their stories to really show that everyone has their own individual problems to confront and face in life as people close experience the same coincidences, problems and personal growth.
Michelle Williams turns in a terrific haunting performance as Randi who is numb to living and continues to be trapped in her grief with the passing of her children and feels abandoned by her estranged husband. Williams draws on personal experience and takes herself to a dark place to really portray the quiet agony and pain of experiencing so much bereavement and change at a time in her life where she assumed she would be in a happy socially normal family playing the role of devoted mother and wife. She finds a new version of herself and her life drastically changes and Williams conveys this with easy and evokes empathy.
Lucas Hedges is a rising young actor with previous appearances in Moonrise Kingdom and Kill the Messenger this is his substantial ‘breakout’ role. He plays the role of angry, young, self absorbed teenager with great direction. It does not feel forced or over the top, we as audiences see underneath angst, a lost young boy with an absent alcoholic mother and now a dead father who is choosing rebellion as distraction from grief. It never feels like a cliche performance. We see a teenage boy forced by circumstance to grow into adult manhood too early who is not ready.
As mentioned the narrative is filtered through main character Lee (Casey Affleck). A man who has experienced the worst type of personal loss concerning his own children, disassociation with his wife the person who becomes a consistent reminder, then his older brother who dies in hospital before a goodbye. It’s all intense for him and he becomes a janitor to avoid social relations even at work but occasionally starts fights when drunk. the uplifting core of the narrative is his forced return to Manchester. Where through grief and self realisation he forms an unexpected bond with his Nephew as he finally has to come to terms with the cards life has dealt him. Affleck is glacial, tired and quietly sad as to be expected in such a lead role.
Manchester by the Sea is a portrait of authentic moments of grief and family dysfunction. The ending holds no quick fix solutions which lets these characters move on from adversity and misfortune. It’s a close examination of individuals adapting to hardship in all forms and shapes of anger, grief, lack of motivation and suffering.
Von Von Lamunu