The two films most tipped for Oscar success are pretty much polar opposites of each other. La La Land is bright, technicolour, wildly ambitious and dazzlingly showy. Manchester By The Sea, on the other hand, is low-key, subtle, and languid. What both films have in common though is their undoubted excellence.
Casey Affleck (eventually escaping the shadow of big brother Ben) plays Lee Chandler, a surly, uncommunicative janitor in Quincy, Massachusetts who spends his time picking fights with men in bars and turning down the advances of beautiful women. Every morning he shovels the snow from his drive and starts a day of unblocking drains for people. He’s not living, just barely existing.
His world is turned upside down when he receives a phone call to tell him his brother Joe has died due to a rare heart condition, and that he’s been named guardian of Joe’s teenage son Patrick. He returns upstate to Manchester-by-the-Sea and then, through a series of flashbacks, we learn the tragic truth of what happened to Lee, and watch him try to get over his past and work out what’s best for Patrick.
Manchester By The Sea is a film about grief, loss and regret. It sounds like a bleak, sad film – and it is certainly that. There are scenes that are almost difficult to watch, with Affleck almost struck numb with his grief. The reveal where we find out exactly what secret lies in Lee’s past (the reason that locals refer to him as “THE Lee Chandler?” is absolutely devastating, and the few brief appearances by Michelle Williams, as Lee’s estranged wife, are incredibly emotional.
However, it’s not a depressing film, funnily enough. That’s mainly due to the relationship between Lee and Patrick (a surely star-making turn by young Lucas Hedges) who bicker, argue and try to bond in an often very amusing way. There are powerful moments too, especially when Patrick suffers a panic attack after trying to get frozen food out of a freezer, which reminds him of his deceased father on ice awaiting burial.
In other hands this could be a sickly sentimental film, but director and writer Kenneth Lonergan keeps things on an even keel by steadily letting Lee’s story unfold – there’s no big reconciliations, and it doesn’t spoil things to say that Affleck doesn’t end the film a happier and more rounded human who bursts into song because of the beauty of the world. Instead, the message is that some people are just broken, due to past trauma, and they deal with it the best way that they can.
This is definitely a film for people who appreciate great acting – Casey Affleck gives a career best performance, and Michelle Williams, as usual, steals every scene she’s in. It’s no surprise to see the pair of them, and Hedges, all nominated for Academy Awards, and it would be no surprise if they won the lot. This is only Lonergan’s third film in 17 years, but it may well be his masterpiece.