Kenneth Lonergan’s return to the big screen as both writer and director after a hiatus of five years has come in the form of this independent realistic film called Manchester by the Sea. Reminiscent of his previous works revolving around family drama and complex characters (themes also present in his directorial debut You Can Count On Me), Manchester by the Sea tells the story of Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), a janitor who leads a meaningless life, who has to go back to his seaside hometown when his brother Joe dies of a heart disease, making him the legal tutor of his teenage son Patrick.
From this brief spoiler-free synopsis one could think of a million films that have used a similar story, which is at least what I thought before I watched it (to be honest “family member who goes back to his/her hometown after a long time and is forced to reunite with his/her family and ends up discovering the joy of having someone to count on” should be a film genre). But Lonergan does what most TV movie directors fail to which is building extraordinary ordinary characters and making the actors embody them in a way that makes the audience feel that they are more than just characters on a screen.
The film had its world premiere at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, where it was acquired by Amazon Studios for $10 million, which marks the first big triumph of the Internet giant in the film industry. It has also been an awards favorite, with six Oscar nominations (best motion picture, director, actor, supporting actor, supporting actress and screenplay) and five Golden Globe nominations. Casey Affleck is expected to win the Oscar for his performance as Lee, although Denzel Washington’s recent triumph at the SAG Awards for the critically-acclaimed drama Fences poses a threat.
If you have stumbled upon this blog before at some point, you should be aware of my love for independent films and, most importantly, independent films that manage not to alienate the mainstream audience, therefore making an explicit or implicit impact. Movies should not only be made to entertain and make money, but movies can’t only be focused on a small portion of audience, because they keep people who are not exposed to this kind of cinema from ever discovering it and enjoying it. Manchester by the Sea is a combination of both art and box office success ($45 million at the box office as of today, with a budget of a little over $8 million), which makes it an obvious Oscar contender.
The movie relies entirely on the actors, who are exquisitely directed by Lonergan. Despite my personal hatred towards Casey Affleck (a topic discussed in this article), his performance is just breathtaking for the simple reason that it feels true, that he brings his character to life and is able to embody the complex emotions that he feels throughout the movie. The young Lucas Hedges, who has also garnered an Oscar nomination for his role as Patrick, Lee’s nephew, does an excellent job in this film, making him one of the most promising young actors of his generation. And as much as I like Michelle Williams, who is excellent in everything she does, I think the awards and media buzz around her are unnecessary and most importantly misleading. Yes, she does a great job, but I don’t think that in any other movie the less than 10 minutes she is on screen would have earned her an Oscar nomination. It is true that Viola Davis was nominated for Doubt in 2008 for basically one scene, but her strength and power can’t compare to Williams’. Her character is absolutely heartbreaking, but it is not enough to build a whole marketing campaign around her and even feature her in the poster instead of Hedges. Too much marketing.
Finally, I promised to myself that I would not mention Casey Affleck’s sexual harassment lawsuits filled against him (and settled for an undisclosed amount), because it is a controversial subject but since we are talking about Manchester by the Sea I feel like I can and should. In case you are not aware of the subject, in 2010 Affleck was sued by two women (the producer and cinematographer) with whom he worked in his mockumentary I’m Still Here. Many haver argued that endorsing him in this awards season means saying that it is ok to condone his inexcusable behavior because he is a good actor. There is no question that his performance in Manchester by the Sea is incredible (I have admitted it myself in the previous paragraph), but Hollywood should not only focus on craft but also on humanity. The message given here is to sexual assault and harassment survivors is that the perpetrators can eventually be acclaimed, despite their action off-set. Many people on social media have taken a stand to defend Affleck, saying that the Academy does not have to judge actors based on who they are as people, and that to seek justice one should go to Court, not the Academy. I will have to disagree since coincidentally, the opposite happened to Nate Parker, director and star of Birth of a Nation, a film that looked like an Oscar favorite and was purchased by Fox Searchlight at Sundance last year for $17,5 million, the largest sum paid at the film festival to date. Parker’s award chances (and box office potential) were completely killed in August 2016 when rape charges against him from 1999 resurfaced. Parker was dragged through the mud at the film ended up making only $16 million at the box office. No Academy Awards nomination, of course, despite winning both the Audience and the Grand Jury Price at Sundance. Sexual assault or harassment should not be condoned, which is why I hope the Academy does not award Affleck the Oscar for Best Actor. But they probably will.
Despite all this, I truly recommend this film, a triumph of independent art cinema and a magnificent welcome back card for Kenneth Lonergan.