You should definitely "sea" it
by Declan Murphy
One of the major problems with film festivals is the exponential factor of word-of-mouth promotion. Early releases, especially those that have debuted at other festivals, are expected to be better than others, and audience members tend to agree with the perception of the film that had generated prior to the screening. Take, for instance, festival darling Steve Jobs. The movie premiered at festivals last year to widespread acclaim, even serving as the centerpiece of last year’s New York Film Festival. But after disappointing box office returns, the reputation of the film had petered out by awards season.
So I must say, with some trepidation because of the aforementioned biases: Manchester by the Sea, one of the Main Slate films at this year’s New York Film Festival, will almost certainly win an Oscar.
Manchester is a powerful and beautiful film, mired in tragedy. The premise—a teenage boy is adopted by his uncle after losing his father to heart disease—may seem familiar, but the execution is anything but. It’s an unromantic portrait of loss; moments pass by in silence, and the grief is addressed with all the terse reserve that its New England setting suggests.
It’s also anchored by incredible, Oscar-worthy performances. Casey Affleck is silent, pained, joking, and caring at various points in the film, with equal success. He brings a brooding nobility to his rough, workmanlike character. The supporting cast, including Michelle Williams, do excellent work as well. It’s a simple script that says as much in its pauses as in its words.
Manchester by the Sea is the third feature by writer / director Kenneth Lonergan. Lonergan’s other two features are similar indie dramas, but he’s also served as a writer for the film Gangs of New York and the off-Broadway play This is Our Youth. Lonergan has a gift for dialogue; as mentioned, the film uses its text sparsely but effectively. It successfully avoids many of the dead-parent clichés. Resolution does not come easily; the two do not learn a ‘valuable lesson’; no one is expected to be alright by the end. It’s tragedy as it is in real life: imperfect and messy.
I was lucky enough to attend a talkback with Lonergan, which was also illuminating. Lonergan discussed Manchester in context of his other work. It certainly feels like a culmination. Here, Lonergan fully develops themes established in his other works, most notably the importance of location. His earlier Margaret was fully integrated into the New York skyline. Here, New England provides the backdrop, including the titular Manchester-by-the-Sea. Luckily, it swerves to avoid making a mockery of the outer Boston accent, and instead embraces its dialect. The freezing winter, the nearby sea, and the repressed Northern culture all play parts in the drama, and it pays off incredibly well.
It’s also, oddly enough, quite funny. Casey Affleck’s Lee Chandler is sarcastic, caustic, and brief. His interplay with his teenage co-star is an exercise in brevity and wit. Lee Chandler is utterly unfit to be a parent, and his awkward banter rings true.
Manchester is profound, heartfelt, and just all-around enjoyable. It’s easily the highlight of this year’s NYFF. While Kristen Stewart’s Shopper may draw in plenty of its own acclaim, Manchester by the Sea has the accessibility to permeate the public consciousness and the staying power to become a classic. I cannot recommend Manchester by the Sea more highly.