January 17, 2018

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Portrait of sadness with a splash of colour

Oscar-buzzworthy film finds small glimmer of hope, humour in tragedy

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 9/12/2016 (404 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

You know those movies in which someone seemingly unsuited to parenthood suddenly gets stuck with a kid and hilarity ensues, along with some heartwarming life lessons?

This is not one of those movies.

Yes, Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) reluctantly returns to his working-class hometown to help with his adolescent nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), after the death of Joe (Kyle Chandler), Lee’s older brother and the boy’s father. But this is a film by playwright and scripter Kenneth Lonergan, whose stubborn genius involves acknowledging the confused, messy, sometimes unresolvable pain of life while giving that pain the concentration and focus of art.

Lonergan’s third film as a writer-director — after his 2000 breakout You Can Count on Me and the problematic 2011 production Margaret — Manchester by the Sea is a difficult, delicate, almost unbearably affecting drama about men not talking about stuff.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 9/12/2016 (404 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

You know those movies in which someone seemingly unsuited to parenthood suddenly gets stuck with a kid and hilarity ensues, along with some heartwarming life lessons?

This is not one of those movies.

CLAIRE FOLGER / ROADSIDE ATTRACTIONS / AMAZON STUDIOS</p><p>Casey Affleck (left) plays a weary Lee Chandler forced to support his nephew, played by Lucas Hedges, in Manchester By the Sea.</p></p>

CLAIRE FOLGER / ROADSIDE ATTRACTIONS / AMAZON STUDIOS

Casey Affleck (left) plays a weary Lee Chandler forced to support his nephew, played by Lucas Hedges, in Manchester By the Sea.

Yes, Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) reluctantly returns to his working-class hometown to help with his adolescent nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), after the death of Joe (Kyle Chandler), Lee’s older brother and the boy’s father. But this is a film by playwright and scripter Kenneth Lonergan, whose stubborn genius involves acknowledging the confused, messy, sometimes unresolvable pain of life while giving that pain the concentration and focus of art.

Lonergan’s third film as a writer-director — after his 2000 breakout You Can Count on Me and the problematic 2011 production MargaretManchester by the Sea is a difficult, delicate, almost unbearably affecting drama about men not talking about stuff.

The story starts in a grey Boston winter, with Lee going through the motions of his janitorial job. Weary and withdrawn, he lives completely inside himself except for bursts of volatile rage, which come out in random bar fights and jerky driving.

When Lee gets the news of his brother’s death, he heads to the fishing town of Manchester. Joe has appointed Lee as Patrick’s guardian, asking that he live in the family home, but Lee has some kind of history in the community that makes it hard for him to stay.

People look at him with pity or hostility. There are whispered rumours. "So that’s the Lee Chandler," says one character. Lee frames the guardianship issue as a logistical problem, but his reluctance clearly has roots in some unspecified traumatic event.

Affleck, who recently played a tortuously introverted ship’s engineer in The Finest Hours, continues to explore the subtle power of inward-looking characters. He gives a career performance here, which will definitively shift his status from "the other Affleck brother" to Oscar frontrunner. Embodying sunken-eyed suffering while avoiding any showy emoting, Lee is a study in a particular kind of masculine grief that transmutes sadness into anger and self-destruction.

CLAIRE FOLGER/ROADSIDE ATTRACTIONS AND AMAZON STUDIOS</p><p>Michelle Williams plays Lee’s former wife in key flashbacks.</p>

CLAIRE FOLGER/ROADSIDE ATTRACTIONS AND AMAZON STUDIOS

Michelle Williams plays Lee’s former wife in key flashbacks.

Gifted newcomer Hedges matches Affleck. Patrick comes off as a typical texting millennial, but also as a young man who has acquired some of the ironical emotional wariness of his father and uncle.

Lonergan carefully weaves in flashbacks. The past is revealed, first gradually, in scenes with Randi (Michelle Williams), Lee’s former wife, and then rushing in with terrible clarity. This isn’t a dramatic climax or cathartic release, however, but an opening to an even more nuanced reading of the present.

This could all sound pretty dirge-like, but there is a bleak, wintry line of humour running through the film. Lonergan has also scripted Hollywood comedies, including Analyze This, and he finds a funny side to the way these men avoid talking about what they need to talk about, instead diverting deep reserves of feeling into loaded conversations about car heaters and hockey.

It also helps that Patrick plays in a bad teenage basement band called, rather hilariously, Stentorian, and that he’s working though grief for his dad by juggling a highly complex girlfriend situation.

Lonergan’s approach to his characters is sensitive and sincere but never sentimental. These are suffering, inarticulate people who don’t suddenly find words for their pain or ways to overcome it just because some screenwriter wants them to.

The story is about how we get past trauma and how sometimes we don’t but keep going all the same. And even that latter situation is not without a gleam of hope, as Manchester by the Sea slowly uncovers its broken but humane heart.

alison.gillmor@freepress.mb.ca

Read more by Alison Gillmor .

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