I’m not sure what it is about Manchester by the Sea, but I’m just not quite getting it. Based on reviews and marketing, I think I know how I’m supposed to feel about it, but I just can’t manage up enough sympathy for the film to have the desired effect. This confusion sort of holds me back from trying to criticize any individual aspects of the film.
Manchester by the Sea, Massachussets is the town Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) gets called back to when his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) dies. He thinks he will be there for a week or so to take care of Joe’s affairs, then back to his job as a handyman for an apartment complex in Boston. However, his stay ends up spinning out from weeks into months as an examination of Joe’s will reveals that Lee has been named legal guardian to Joe’s 16 year old son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). As we see the tragedy the befell Lee in the same town many years earlier, we see why it’s impossible to help Patrick over the grief of losing his father, or be there to raise him into manhood.
The movie is about how much Lee is trapped in his own grief and unable to move on after losing his family years ago. The interesting thing is, throughout the flashbacks we see how little Lee fit in with his wife Randi (Michelle Williams) and their three children in the first place. He functions just fine on Joe’s fishing boat with a younger Patrick, but as soon as he enters a domestic realm he seems ill at ease. He makes a lot of jokes at his wife’s expense, is drunk most of the time, and seems to prefer the company of his friends. Obviously this doesn’t make losing his family not a tragedy or anything, but I don’t think that his one momentous misfortune is the only reason he has trouble with the idea of raising Patrick. He’s just not built for it, which is part of the reason why it didn’t work out the first time and why he’s afraid to try again.
Because of what is included in the flashbacks, I think the film is aware of this aspect of Lee’s character but I’m not sure anyone in the film is. A scene in a police station removes him of any culpability of what happened to his family, which I’m not sure is legally or morally accurate. It’s no wonder he keeps punnishing himself by living in isolation, getting into fights and taking crummy jobs. It’s not as if society does anything to punnish him for what happened; besides ostrazation from a few townspeople all of the negative consequences he experiences seem to result from his own actions.
The characters in the film, mainly Patrick and sometimes Lee, mask their pain with humor and sarcasm, making the film not unenjoyable. You always wonder when the floodgates are going to burst through, when the characters are going to stop joking about how miserable they are and actually be miserable. A few of the scenes occur in the film, but are swiftly followed by business as usual. It seems to suggest that grief, or at least how these characters deal with it, cannot be vanquished no matter what one does, so might as well face it with a laugh.
Two hours and seventeen minutes can be a long time to see characters basically operating in a stasis, and I suppose that is one thing that held the film back for me. I don’t necessarily go to films to see characters fix their lives, but it’s usually nice if some type of progress gets made. Nevertheless, I gotta be a fan on some of level of this film for its Boston-area locations, the bright and clean, crisp photography by Jody Lee Lipes contrasting the characters’ inner lives with their outward environment.
I’ve tried to give Manchester by the Sea a fair look, and can say there are things I appreciated about it but overall I didn’t really connect with the film at all. I can see it getting a fair ammount of awards attention, because the acclaim shows no signs of stopping since coming out of Sundance earlier this year, but for whatever reason I just can’t get behind this movie because it seems like sadness for sadness’s sake. I don’t know what I’m supposed to get out of it, at the end of the day.
Long story short: 3/4 stars
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