The awards’ season is already here, full of celebrities and movies, but Manchester By The Sea has been receiving awards and critical acclaim since last year’s Sundance Festival where it premiered. The film, written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, took the headlines of films’ critics by describing it as one of the best movies of the year.
The expectation only continued to grow, but the film, which was made with a low budget, hasn’t counted with the wide release that other films like La La Land have enjoyed. Amazon Studios bought the domestic rights of Manchester By The Sea, and made it available in the US in a limited release in theaters. This is not something to criticize, the movie is not for everyone, and yet if it was marketed like the others, there sure would be a mass expression of love towards it.
As for me, I was able to watch the movie last week and read the script as soon as I got home from the theatre, reason why I am writing this now and not before.
So why is the movie such a success in storytelling, acting and overall as an audiovisual experiencie?
We are set in a drama that starts giving many clues in its fantastic and emotional trailer, which leaves the viewer with just enough information to be both excited and interested about the development of the story without knowing everything about it. The first minutes of the film take care of introducing the audience to the main character, Lee (played in full majesty by Casey Affleck), but it also takes care of presenting the trigger that sets the following events. After some minutes, Lee faces what seems to be quite a life changing tragedy, and it is, but once we advance in the story we find out through flashbacks that this is his second tragic experience regarding the death of someone he loves. Then we meet Patrick, Lee’s nephew portrayed by Lucas Hedges, a troubled teenager that can also be seen as “normal” in many times. And from there, it is mainly about these two characters dealing with the loss of someone they loved, but also about figuring out how to live together, how to move forward and accept reality.
Up to here, the movie would sound pretty basic, and in the writer and director’s, Kenneth Lonergan, words it kind of is. But this is a movie that embraces a simple story and takes it to a whole new level thanks to its many successful elements.
The first element I want to point out and highlight is the acting. Kenneth created characters that are so close to reality that I bet they are even more difficult to portray. That way, it is not only the situation which can seem as a pretty normal one, but also the characters in it and the dialogues involved. All these things make of the characters interesting and relatable ones, guided by the cleverness of the lines of dialogue they have to pronounce; these are not the typical dialogues you find in a movie, these sound like they were taken exactly from real life. The cast plays quite the part in this, you can see by reading the script that although most of the tones and portrayals were already written, the actors took and hightened the characters to make them even more powerful and real. Casey Affleck makes an outstanding job at using dialogue lines without sounding the same in all of them and yet without making it look that it is a different Lee every time.
It wouldn’t be fair just to mention Casey though, whose character is indeed the most important one. That’s why I also have to mention Michelle Williams (who plays Randi), a supporting actress that doesn’t have much screen on time but that in the few shots she appears in, she just embeds a level of lightness, emotion and also darkness that refreshes the whole story. There is also Lucas Hedges, the now 20 years old actor who makes a perfect job in portraying adolescence the way it is: awkward, funny, hurtful, depressive and unknown. Lucas is a revelation and someone who will for sure shine in future projects. Finally, it is also worth mentioning the job done with the people of Manchester, because the different extras that appear contribute to the film making the audience feel part of this town.
The second element I want to highlight is the narrative structure and the way it is handled. This is a slow movie, and given its speed and the theme it deals with, it is not for the likes of everyone. Manchester By The Sea has a clear three acts structure, and makes use of resources like flashbacks in a clever and touching way. They are divided in many instead of being presented as a single one, and the objective of this is to both make a bigger impact in the audience but also explain more in deep the struggles the characters are facing now and the reason why they act the way they do. As I mentioned before, even though the movie is slow, the three acts structure makes the way for it to be understandable; and while the resolution could seem as a short one, it is precise and doesn’t get into more than it had to after all that had been told. That’s why the last two scenes, even if short, make probably for the most important part of the story, both in character and plot development. Which brings me to the third element:
The theme, with its importance as a drama and as a statement. Manchester By The Sea deals with grief, which is the main theme of the film, but it also deals with other struggles like depression, loneliness and love. This is why the movie can seem like such a dark one for many people, who will prefer to go to the theaters and watch a lighter more hopeful movie, and that is okay. But this story is important because it does not only portray all those “dark” emotions and situations, but because it enacts them mostly from the point of view of two men. It is not something that has to do with sexism, but it matters because it is often hidden how male characters and therefore people deal with these kind of emotions; it is still seen as something that we are not allowed to show and even feel.
Manchester By The Sea portrays both a really young man, Patrick, and a grown up, Lee; while they deal with their grief, their own pains and even regrets, but also how they are needed of love from the other. As Lucas Hedges has said in many interviews, his character, Patrick, is mostly looking for love from his uncle; and the same can be said about Lee. We can see through the flashbacks that ever since Patrick was a child, Lee always worried about him and took him into his arms to sort of protect him, and in present day it’s not that he doesn’t feel the same, he is just afraid to hurt him even more after all he’s been through. He is afraid of it, but in the end his biggest fear is losing Patrick. This is important to understand because Lee’s actions are not from someone who doesn’t care or just doesn’t want to be a responsible man, these are actions from a man that is broken and is afraid to break Patrick, but also of breaking himself completely by losing him.
Lee has already felt grief this way, and even worse. He has lost too much and when the time comes to face his brother’s legacy, he is too destroyed to be able to embrace it like someone should, at least from the eyes of a society that judges without understanding. He is still a human and therefore capable of loving, he knows that he can’t leave Patrick alone, he wouldn’t forgive himself if he did so. He sort of understands that his brother left Patrick on his charge for a reason, and that reason is redemption. A drama, besides having close to reality characters and dealing with internal struggles, is characterized by the fact that it presents redemption at some kind and degree, and this film is not an exception. Manchester By The Sea is capable of being dark and depressive but also funny and awkward in plenty of times thanks to its close connection to reality, and therefore manages to give redemption even if it doesn’t present the “happily ever after” ending most movies have. Because this is reality, and the reality that this movie shows is that there are things that are too painful and broken that never, not even in a million years, will be able to be forgotten or moved on from completely. The death of someone you love is not something you just get over, it also kills you a little, or a lot, inside; and when there’s a feeling of guilt and regret involved, that only makes it worse. Lee faces it all, he is not capable of really overcoming his past because it is too messed up, and that is okay, because at the end it didn’t mean he couldn’t be saved or enjoy life again, it just meant that he had to learn to live with it, and he found that through Patrick.
The last two or three scenes of the film are a rectification of the characters in their core but also in their development throughout the story. On one side, Patrick is still someone who doesn’t have his future figured out, and that’s one of the reasons why he says he won’t go to college when Lee asks him about his future; it is also a sign of him still being broken inside. And I don’t say this in the sense of not going to college meaning that if that’s the choice there are no goals or that your future doesn’t look bright, but in the sense of taking all the elements that surround Patrick into account and seeing that this decision is a reflection of the unknown and broken of his life. This guy is also way more caring about his uncle than before: he asks him about the place he is moving to. And finally, he embraces doing normal daily life activities with Lee, which is important given that through the movie we see their relationship as one based on material or superficial needs, like Patrick needing his uncle to drive him somewhere; which is what changes at the end, he throws the baseball ball with Lee (I loved the reference of this scene with one from a flashback) and it also goes as far as to showing both of them in the boat fishing, which is important in Manchester’s culture and also theirs.
On the other side is Lee, a man who was living without living, he just existed, and it is not like at the end he lives at its fullest or that he enjoys his life as a whole, but by still carrying the pain that he now knows won’t ever leave him, he is capable to see in his nephew another reason to love with less fear, to care with less fear and to enjoy life through him. The biggest sign of Lee growing and finding redemption is him getting an apartment with an extra room, even when he won’t adopt Patrick; he doesn’t want to lose his nephew and contrary to what we see at the beginning of the movie, where Lee lived in a small room without space to receive anyone, now he is thinking of having extra space for Patrick so that he can go and visit him and spend time together. He redeemed himself through Patrick and found a purpose again.
Through Manchester By The Sea, both characters faced what was probably the worst moments of their lives while they were somehow forced to do it together; but they were fierce, clever, caring and loving enough to decide by themselves to move forward with those scars, together.
Manchester By The Sea is a statement about those dark moments that we, as humans, go through in life and how painful they are, how we can lose control; but most importantly it is about importance of the people around us and how, even if it is too messed up, there is always room for hope and redemption.