It’s currently Oscar season, and we now know all nine Best Picture candidates. While I’ve already seen Hacksaw Ridge and La La Land, I thought I’d try to check out at least a couple more nominees before the winner was decided in a couple of weeks. This past week I finally watched Manchester by the Sea, which was a good film but ultimately didn’t leave much of a lasting impression on me.
The film stars Casey Affleck as Lee Chandler, a New England man who suffers from immense depression and guilt after his alcoholism indirectly caused the death of his three children, which also led to his wife leaving him. He lives a mostly isolated life in a Boston suburb, but upon receiving news that his brother has died, he returns to his hometown of Manchester by the Sea to manage the affairs and to look after his teenage nephew Patrick, over whom Lee has, to his surprise, been made the guardian (Patrick’s mother, though alive, is mentally unstable and is largely absent from his life).
I can’t put my finger on it, but I feel like I’ve seen other movies with similar premises to this one. In those films, a character like Lee would bond with a character like Patrick and become less depressed, realizing that becoming a foster parent to him is a chance to atone for his wrongs; and eventually he would find redemption and a renewed sense of self worth.
Manchester by the Sea, though, isn’t really like that. It eschews that kind of traditional narrative structure and sensibilities for the most part in favor of a more somber “series of events” approach. This is a film that shows the audience moments in these people’s lives over a span of a few months, but it isn’t necessarily trying to advance a concrete plot that has a climax and resolution. This is best seen with the fact that our characters don’t go through what I would consider to be typical arcs, and they don’t grow in the ways we might expect them to. Lee, for example, doesn’t ever get over his grief; nor does Patrick, who partakes in very questionable behavior — such as dating/sleeping with two different girls without them knowing about each other — come to any realization that what he’s doing is wrong. In a more traditional films those things would have surely happened, but not here.
There’s an element of realism about much of what we see on screen. In real life, people don’t always work things out the way they do in the movies, and sometimes their progress is minuscule; and it’s possible that this is the kind of message this movie is ultimately trying to send. It’s grim but it does have merit, and unlike the real-world lesson given at the end of La La Land (which I found to be at odds with the rest of the film) the one here at least fits with the rest of the story. The film’s grit and somberness never promises a happy, unrealistic message; and so it’s not surprising that we don’t get one by the end.
Outside of that melancholic realism, though, I found that there just wasn’t a whole lot to this story. It’s a series of sad events that reminds you that life is tough at times; and that’s kind of it. It never amounts to more than that; there’s no hidden profundity in what’s going on; and I was left not feeling much the wiser after having seen the film. I just didn’t get that much out of it, and given that it’s garnered so much praise, I was hoping I would. Perhaps I missed something, and subsequent viewings may reveal layers of brilliance. But for now, I have to go with thinking that this is an oddly barren film for a Best Picture contender.
With that last sentence, I admit to being worried that I’ll be mistaken for disliking a picture that has won universal acclaim, so I do want to say that there was a lot about this film that I enjoyed. This is a well crafted work; it’s appropriately paced; the music is nice; and the acting is top notch. In particular, I thought Casey Affleck, who is getting a great deal of praise for his performance, did a good job with the lead role. He really sells the turmoil that Lee goes through, and I totally bought into the character. Lucas Hedges, who plays Patrick, also gives a fine turn and captures common teenage angst. Interestingly enough, Matthew Broderick has a small role in this film. He’s only on screen for a couple of minutes and doesn’t get too much to do, but I’m a fan of Broderick, and it was good to see him on screen. Additionally, I appreciated the film’s setting of New England in the winter. It feels relatively unique to see a place/time like that shown in a movie; and the snow and grey skies do add to the general ambience of the picture. Plus, it reminds me a bit of where I live, particularly since it is winter at the moment, which is nice.
Manchester by the Sea is an interesting experiment of a picture. It’s entertaining and well crafted but ultimately doesn’t amount to much. I enjoyed watching it, but I suppose I wanted a little more from it. Still, I would recommend checking it out if you have even a slight interest in seeing it. And given everyone else’s reviews, there’s a good chance you may even like it more than I did.