Going Home Is The Hardest Thing
The film opens with an introduction to Boston handyman, Lee Chandler [Affleck] who lives an incredibly Spartan existence, servicing the tenants in an apartment building with their menial chores. At the very start of the film we learn that Lee’s brother, Joe [Chandler], has passed away due to an ongoing heart complication. Lee takes it all very calmly and returns to his hometown of Manchester. He also breaks the news of Joe’s passing to his nephew Patrick [Hedges]. From what we’ve seen of Lee, Patrick displays a lot of very similar qualities: hot-headed but a hard worker. As Lee tries to arrange his brother’s funeral and figure out what to do with Patrick, we are offered sporadic glimpses into Lee’s past which shows a very different kind of person, while also fleshing out who Joe was and slowly building to the reason Lee is the way he is.
Manchester By The Sea is one of those independent films that really polarises audiences; not necessarily because of its content but because it isolates audience members who simply do and don’t like independent dramatic pieces. The plot is simplistic, the acting is deeply emotional without veering into hyperbolic exaggeration and the direction is stealthily bold. Starting with that last statement, the cinematography, direction and editing all seem to favour static shots that cut short either mid-flow or a little too soon. As audiences, we expect a certain rhythm but most people aren’t usually aware of this rhythm, it’s only when it’s disrupted that something feels out of place. Things like cutting before the roar of an engine starting reaches its peak or on an intake of breath, these things our brains are programmed to expect an end but without it, we’re left momentarily disorientated. As a parallel to a sudden death in the family, every scene transitions with this same impact; the idea that what was continuing to a logical conclusion either stops, shifts dramatically or simply doesn’t go anywhere – the ultimate example would be the film’s close which no doubt took a lot of audience members by surprise.
Presenting a story which contains so little in the form of actual events, a lot of the emotional connective weight comes from the acting. The only reason we’re hanging around is to see how these characters deal with these, frankly, tedious tasks. In that regard, Manchester By The Sea is a masterclass. Affleck and Hedges give exceptional performances that are simultaneously gripping, amusing, heart-breaking and all too real. Tied with the flashbacks to when Patrick was a boy, it’s evident that this teenager isn’t the innocent child he once was and that due to circumstances in his life, Lee isn’t even remotely capable of dealing with a teenager, let alone one who has just lost his father. The ensemble of supports feel more like walk-on cameos, either because they exist solely in flashback or because they arguably impact the leads in such minimal ways, serving more as props for Lee or Patrick to interact with. That may sound overly harsh but it genuinely isn’t intended to be. Case in point, Patrick has two girlfriends but neither really furthers the story other than to be used as a talking point as to why he doesn’t want to move to Boston or to illustrate the kind of man Patrick is slowly becoming. This isn’t to say the performances are bad, on the contrary, they are quite brilliant, if only for their simplicity.
In addition to the seminal acting, the nature of the script ensures this film never delves into cliché. The script is retrained in the sense that all of the interactions feel real to the point they could be ad-libbed. There are so many unfinished sentences and multiple individuals talking over one another that trying to picture how that would look on the page is mindboggling. On top of that, while the bulk of the story is pretty emotionally draining, it’s broken up with clever injections of humour and glib honesty; after all this is two emotionally distant men talking about anything but. And that lack of closure, the pathetic chaos of their conversations beautifully reflects life, which is so often void of dramatic encounters. Even the most “for your consideration” moment, wherein Lee bumps into his ex-wife in the street and they try and come to an amicable point over what’s happened in their past, is not an eloquent monologue, there’s so much in the way of uncomfortable foot shuffling, rolling necks, diverted gazes and constant interruptions, anything to not talk about the elephant between them. Coming back to the nature of dramatic independent films, people often tell me they go to the cinema to be entertained, not bored or depressed and studios are well aware of this common opinion, so much so that films generally tend to add an escapist optimism, a feeling that everything will be alright but in real life there are certain developments that are so traumatic that getting over it simply isn’t an option, there’s just stumbling on as best as humanly possible. That’s where Manchester By The Sea exists.
It’s very difficult for me to fault this film because technically, structurally and acting-wise, it’s extremely impressive. One could expand on what I’ve said above by noting that the pacing and tone will displease a lot of people but that doesn’t make it a bad film, it just means large parts of the audience won’t get it. The flashbacks were interspersed at just the right place to not only illustrate the shift in Lee’s character but also to mirror the erratic way our memories recover and present information. Arguably, I knew where a lot of the film was going but that doesn’t make it predictable and the tiny dream element when Lee burns some sauce was a little contrite but outside of that, it’s a bleak, honest, surprisingly funny film that deceptively shifts the focus of grief so much so that you surreptitiously realise that some mourning never stops.
17th January 2017
The Scene To Look Out For:
The sound design for this film is absolutely brilliant. I know when award season rolls around we see all these lavish action and science fiction films being praised for their use of sound (and rightly so) but all too often the subtle use of these elements is overlooked. The morning after Lee first arrives in Manchester, he makes a phone call at the kitchen table to arrange collection of his deceased brother from the hospital. The conversation irks him a little as he feels the routes they would take will ratchet up his overall costs. Midway through, Patrick’s girlfriend (one of them) comes down stairs and starts to make and eat some breakfast. A couple of seconds later Patrick appears, pouring cereal into a bowl then eating it. The sound editor’s job is to raise the volume to shift audience focus to where it needs to be at that time. In this case, the audience feels like it should be what Lee is saying but the noise around him is heightened, leading to a degree of irritation, which finally reaches a peak when Silvie says “Mr Chandler, I don’t think Patrick needs to hear this” and Lee storms off out of the room to continue his conversation. It’s brilliantly handled and incredibly subtle but effective.
As ridiculous as this will sound, bear with me. My favourite character was Otto the drummer. Patrick plays in a band and being sixteen everything about his band is instantly identifiable with a high school band. The music is pleasant but derivative and the fact they count themselves in by saying the name of the band first dictates everything I need to know about them. In keeping with the earnestness of the feature, Otto feels like the outsider of the group, Patrick is dating the lead singer and clearly best friends with the other two members. The only time we see Otto is during these two rehearsals and both times we stop mid-song just to berate him for either drumming too slow or too fast. And once the song resumes, the camera chooses to stay on Otto as he grumpily pouts at the injustice of it all. I swear you could make an entirely separate spin-off film based on those two looks of frustration.
“If you’re gonna freak out every time you see a frozen chicken I should take you to the hospital”
In A Few Words:
“An incredibly honest portrayal of grief, loss and the importance of familial solidarity”