It’s a story that’s been told a thousand times: the death of a family member brings a character back to his hometown, only to face the demons of his past that made him leave in the first place. The return-to-home plot has been tackled by numerous films, and relocating such a story to a wintry Massachusetts setting seems to have the potential of a dreary snooze-fest rather than a Best Picture contender.
Instead, “Manchester by the Sea” heads into the 89th Academy Awards with the opportunity to take home a bounty in Oscar gold, including Best Picture, Best Leading Actor, and Best Supporting Actor and Actress. The secret to “Manchester’s” success is dynamic acting, complimented by relatable dialogue and well-crafted scenery.
Director Kenneth Lonergan made a brilliant choice in utilizing nature to emphasize mood from the film’s onset to its conclusion. “Manchester” opens in snow-covered Boston, focusing on the lonely handyman Lee Chandler, played by Casey Affleck. The blanketed colorlessness immediately creates a feeling of desolation and death, an appropriate atmosphere for when Lee receives a call to tell him his older brother has suffered a fatal heart attack.
Lonergan continues to use bland, neutral scenery throughout the film as Lee travels to his hometown of Manchester to take care of his brother’s affairs, namely the 16-year-old son his brother left behind. From gray ocean water to the sheen whiteness of a hockey rink, it is rare to see the slightest hint of greenery or a glimpse of a blue sky as Lee and his nephew, Patrick, navigate life in the aftermath of losing their closest family member.
“Manchester” is not, however, just a story of mourning family members. Lonergan crafts a much more complex story, as Lee soon learns that his brother named him Patrick’s guardian in the event of his death. Suddenly faced with this responsibility, Lee has to decide if he can take on that role for his nephew and live in the town he left after suffering a tragic loss. While this may sound like a touching story of family uniting over the death of a loved one, the actions of the main character make it a more difficult and even frustrating storyline.
Far from the wise, compassionate uncle, Lee proves to be an emotionally shut-off character. If not for anything else, Affleck’s portrayal of Lee is Oscar-worthy simply because of the tragedy he is able to inject into the withdrawn performance of his role. Lee shows a preference for silence over discussion, even though it is at times obvious that he is hurting. This makes Lee infuriating at times but also a relatable and even sympathetic character as the story progresses.
Affleck is, of course, surrounded by a strong supporting cast with the ability to bring home Oscars of their own. Michelle Williams puts in a solid performance as Lee’s ex-wife but is not nearly as present in the story as she needs to be. Instead, the show is stolen by Lucas Hedges as Patrick. It is the chemistry between Hedges and Affleck that truly elevates the acting in the film. The two display a relationship that conveys the comfort of close family as well as the tension of drastic changes, such as Lee’s efforts to force Patrick to move to Boston to live with him. Like Affleck, Hedges incorporates a vulnerability into his character, but he distinguishes himself by layering that vulnerability with an adolescent confidence rather than a cold demeanor.
The acting is also helped out by the dialogue, which maintains a level of realism not often seen in movies. The lines spoken are generally blunt and never over-the-top. Lonergan understands real conversations hardly occur in the clean speak-reply fashion that is common in film. In “Manchester,”characters speak over each other, they stumble with words, and they often reply with silence. Lonergan’s approach to dialogue is best summed up by a conversation between Lee and his ex-wife Randi late in the story. During the two-and-a-half-minute exchange, hardly a sentence is completed by either character without an interruption or break in the dialogue.
As these powerful elements carry the story, “Manchester” gracefully unfolds into an engaging tale about the choices people make for themselves and how they handle change. The story is not tied up with neat resolutions, but instead leaves the viewer with the impression of a new, hopeful beginning. Lonergan again uses weather to this end, concluding his film in the early spring, as melting snow give way to blue skies and budding trees.
“Manchester by the Sea” will likely never be praised for having a ground-breaking plot. Instead, the film relies on a foundation of authenticity to give it a boost over other cinematic works. This is primarily achieved through the acting chops of potential Oscar-winners Affleck and Hedges and refined through Lonergan’s dialogue. “Manchester by the Sea” is not a film for audiences looking for two hours of escape from the blandness of everyday life. Still, the film’s blunt storytelling can captivate viewers and critics just the same.