Road to the Oscars: “Manchester by The Sea” Review

Updated on February 3, 2017

Washing the Good Times Away

Manchester by the Sea is a family drama directed by Kenneth Lonergan, starring Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, Michelle Williams and Kyle Chandler. Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a depressed plumber in Boston with a troubled past. The tragic death of a family member forces Lee to his hometown of Manchester, where he is unexpectedly made the guardian of teenager Patrick (Hedges). The film follows Lee and Patrick through the crude formation of what can loosely be described as a bond between them, as well as attempts to mend broken relationships of the past and coming to terms with its difficulty and often impossible nature. We see this via the film cross-cutting between present day and flashbacks seen from Lee’s perspective, as he is continuously plagued by memories while in the town.

Manchester by the Sea is to date the most successful film from the still-young Amazon Studios, marking its first film (and the first film from a streaming service) to be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, one of an impressive six nominations. The film’s stars and director have received tons of Hollywood love in the weeks leading up to the Academy Awards, and based on its buzz and momentum, one could argue that the film is among the top three most likely Best Picture winners. But how does it fare during the actual viewing experience?

Initial Thoughts

If you were expecting to be in for a treat by watching Manchester by the Sea, then you’d be severely disappointed. The film is far from a ‘treat’ unless you like watching sad movies, but that doesn’t mean Manchester by the Sea is a terrible movie. Quite the opposite, in fact. It has several overwhelmingly strong performances that, together, form the biggest reason for its Oscar nomination success. Fans of film and acting can find much to appreciate in the film’s well-crafted elements, but casual movie-goers may be put off by the film’s pace and apparent lack of exciting plot developments in the present day scenes. If one thing can be said about this film, it’s the fact that the film is almost inherently depressing and sad, serving as the foundation for its moving performances, while simultaneously being a dementor for more than half of its 137-minute runtime.

Year of the Affleck

On a far more positive note, Manchester by the Sea’s greatest strength is in its cast. Controversy aside, Casey Affleck is a great actor, and shows his acting chops in full as Lee Chandler, giving a very subdued but powerful performance while wearing an almost-permanent scowl throughout most of the film. Though this isn’t particularly impressive on paper, it is through Affleck’s acting as well as the film’s production design and editing that his feelings and behaviour are felt so strongly by the viewer. The film almost sympathises with a character that is devoid of motivation or enthusiasm in life, while getting upset and irritated at the prospect of shouldering additional responsibilities. This embodies the sense of depression in the film beautifully, giving the viewer a peak into the life of an individual who has experienced unspeakable challenges to the point of losing one’s drive to develop in life.

Lucas Hedges’s Patrick is also a deserved nominee in the supporting actor category, being a seemingly confident teenager in light of recent tragedies, while harbouring a vulnerability and shock which slowly unravels with every passing scene. But it is Michelle Williams’ performance as Lee’s ex-wife Brandi that steals the film, cementing her in the race for best supporting actress with a single scene in the third act of the film. The much-talked-about scene is raw and powerful in the simplest of ways, and has the potential to reduce viewers to tears if they’ve been loyal enough to the stay immersed in the film’s narrative.

It’s arguably inaccurate to say that the film is completely depressing. Though it’s true that the film’s sombre mood is further enhanced by the chorale, operatic and strings-dominated score, there are often pockets of dark humour and warmth peppered throughout the otherwise cold film, adding unexpected moments of relief while still maintaining the overall tone of the film, a feat that director Kenneth Lonergan should take credit for.

Sadness by the Sea

Though it may seem naïve and immature to say, Manchester by the Sea has the feel of an anti-crowd pleaser, a classic ‘Oscar-bait’ drama where everyone is super serious while lamenting the general dissatisfaction of their lives. Though the film’s themes have more depth on closer inspection, it is easy to understand why people wouldn’t be flocking out to watch this film. The film is more of a character study, where the entire plot could be told in about a third of its runtime if the scriptwriters desired. Not only do events in the film feel as non-progressive as the lives of its characters, it also ends on a rather unexpected note, leaving the viewer in brief surprise before allowing the viewer to openly speculate on the events that happened later. That’s the optimistic way of describing Manchester by the Sea’s ending, while a complete sceptic would probably wonder if the scriptwriters had simply run out of ideas, or if the budget was insufficient to continue shooting further. Either way, the ending feels slightly underwhelming and abrupt, which is strange to say for such a slow film. But then again, this may be what Kenneth Lonergan was going for all along.

Concluding Remarks

Manchester by the Sea is an exceptional film in several ways, but probably not appropriate for several audience categories, and certainly not enjoyable or suitable if you’re having a particularly horrid day. If it’s your birthday, then celebrate by watching any film but this one. With respect to awards, it certainly deserves the attention its getting, but a complete shutout in terms of Oscar wins is not unthinkable. Where Michelle Williams is almost certain to lose out to Viola Davis (Fences), Casey Affleck faces stiff competition from Denzel Washington (Fences), and Kenneth Lonergan from Damien Chazelle (La La Land) as well as Barry Jenkins (Moonlight). Still, Manchester by the Sea is significant in its historic achievement for Amazon, a big victory over its rival Netflix at this point in time. It isn’t crazy to get excited about more quality films from both these media giants. Who knows how long it’ll be before the Best Picture race is contested not by distributors Fox Searchlight, Paramount and Lionsgate, but between the streaming services of Amazon and Netflix?

Overall Score: 7.4/10

Manchester by the Sea trailer

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