Monday, January 16, 2017

THE BACKUP: a review of "Manchester By The Sea"

Written and Directed by Kenneth Lonergan
***1/2 (three and a half stars)

In this age of the often mentioned and eve lamented sequels, prequels, remakes, re-imaginings, and reboots, it has become increasingly and so sadly rare to find films that represent a semblance of life as it is honestly lived. No hyperbole. No manufactured manipulation. Just fierce attention to honest storytelling and the honest empathy and drama it can naturally convey. This is precisely what makes Writer/Director Kenneth Lonergan a cinematic necessity.

Lonergan, who made a strong first impression with his critically and awards season acclaimed debut directorial feature "You Can Count On Me" (2000), yet stumbled greatly with the turbulent production of his second film "Margaret" (2011), has rebounded and returned powerfully with his third feature "Manchester By The Sea," a drama of patient, aching tragedy that never for one moment strikes a false note. While I was not as over the moon for this film as most critics have been, especially as we head straight into the new awards season, what Kenneth Lonergan has greatly accomplished cannot be denied whatsoever, as he has indeed crafted an adult film, with adult issues and emotions that houses perceptive, nuanced viewpoints for its entire cast of characters, again asking of us to spend some time in their shoes with the hopes of not being judgmental but understanding. "Manchester By The Sea" is a sobering, humane work of superb gravity.

In keeping in the spirit of the film's own trailers, I will keep my plot description of the film brief. "Manchester By The Sea" stars a fully grounded, and never better Casey Affleck as Lee Chandler, a reticent janitor for an apartment complex in Quincy, Massachusetts. Upon hearing word of his brother Joe's (Kyle Chandler) heart attack, Lee returns to his home town of Manchester-by-the-Sea to then learn of Joe's subsequent death.

After breaking the news to the Patrick (Lucas Hedges), Joe's sixteen year old son and therefore, his nephew, Lee is further stunned to learn that Joe had named him as Patrick's guardian, a role Lee feels to be seismically unequipped to handle. The film also stars Michelle Williams as Lee's ex-wife Randi and Gretchen Mol as Joe's wife, Elise.

Much has already been written about how Kenneth Lonergan's "Manchester By The Sea" is a sad film, sad to the point of being depressing. I will indeed inform you that the film is unquestionably sad as Lonergan has created a work that explores a family tragedy with all of the emotions of loss, mourning, anger, rage, futility, failings and all of the stages of grief contained therein. Yet, a depressing film? I would argue not quite as Lonergan has also created a slice-of-life film which honors the trials of simply living, of finding strength to take that next step into a new day, and to that, it is also a film of great, ribald, foulmouthed humor that never calls attention to itself bu tit also presented with the same perceptiveness to its collective of working class characters and the environment in which they all reside.

To terrific effect, Lonergan wisely eschews with all cinematic flourishes and keep the entirety of the proceedings as real and as raw as life, so much so, the film might at times appear to be a documentary if not for the fact that we already know several of the actors from previous movies. That being said, every single performance feels to be as authentic to the story and locations and as lived in as the communities presented, from the ones you can find populating the fishing boats, bars, businesses and hospitals. In fact, there were quite a number of instances where I wondered if some supporting players in various scenes were indeed local residents and not actors at all, so true the film looked and felt to me.

Yet, in regards to the film's primary performances, Casey Affleck is a quiet storm, hugely effective especially as his character is essentially a more internalized one due to the circumstances of his character's life, his occupation and why he departed his home town for Quincy in the first place. In many ways, "Manchester By The Sea" is yet another film in a sub-category of the prodigal son/daughter returning to their long departed home town due to some family tragedy. In so many cases, those films are rampant with cliches and such false impressions about how families and even small towns operate and exist. On the contrary, Lonergan avoids every single cliche and conceptual trapping richly, often beautifully and always armed with a strict attention to the subtleties of every character's internal life, which results in people that areas three dimensional as the ones we all know in the real world day to day.

I do realize that I am being purposefully cagey concerning some of the more major plot element of 'Manchester By The Sea" and it is not necessarily due to any plot twists for this is not that sort of film. I am being more reticent myself concerning some story elements, because I think the wayLonergan lays out the events of the Chandler family, and specifically Lee Chandler at times through some non-linear flashback sequences, every moment works wonders in detailing exactly who Lee Chandler is and why he feels insufficient to properly become Patrick's guardian.

Casey Affleck is tremendously equal to every moment and situation that Lonergan tosses at him, revealing a somber poignancy and anguish that allows him, and us in the audience, to explore not only our failings but our very limitations when dealing with life's obstacles. Lee may make some final decisions that you may disagree with but for me, I could fully understand and empathize with every single one. Casey Affleck has indeed given the performance of his career thus far.

In what is essentially a cinematic duet of sorts, I have to give considerable mention to Lucas Hedges whose portrayal of Patrick is indeed Affleck's equal for he gives at good as he receives and individually, he crafts the full psychological and emotional palate of a teenage boy dealing with a life altering experience, or better yet, the latest in a series of life altering experiences.

Patrick Chandler is a figure with a full life at school, with friends, his rock band, his role on the school hockey team, two girlfriends and the raging hormones that keep being stifled by the consistent presence of one of his girlfriend's Mother (well played by Heather Burns) as well as the joy he has received from his family's fishing boat. Lee potentially becoming his guardian carries its own amount of stresses for Patrick as well as he wonders if he has to leave the life he has known completely behind for Quincy or not and if Lee refuses his familial obligation, what would become of him in the long run.

The dance set in motion by Joe's death takes the relationship between Lee and Patrick, two figures who have loved each other tremendously, upon a more turbulent and tentative evolution as we regard two men being forced to grow up much faster than either of them are prepared to undertake. This is not to say that  "Manchester By The Sea" is another film revolving around male arrested development. Kenneth Lonergan has created a film that deals with the profound pain of immediate, forced change and how one chooses or is even able to adjust to that forced change or not. And again, I stress to you how non-judgmental the film is from end to end, as Lonergan has achieved a work where we in the audience can easily ask of ourselves what we would do if presented with the exact same situation.

What are our strengths and in turn, our limitations when it comes to our own individualized expectations of ourselves? Would we live up to ourselves when presented with forced change or would we falter,perceiving of ourselves as failure when in actuality, we just did the very best we could possibly do given the circumstances?  Kenneth Lonergan asks of us those very questions, the ones every character within his film "Manchester By The Sea" is asking of themselves. To witness the characters' collective journey throughout and completely devoid of histrionic, manufactured melodrama or more stylized operatics may prove to be somewhat uncomfortable viewing for those audiences members just wishing to head to the movies for an escape.

But even so, I urge you to not be deterred by the intense, palpable sadness for Kenneth Lonergan's "Manchester By The Sea" is stirring, deeply satisfying drama powerfully connected to the struggles and strains of the human condition.

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