Crafting a pure drama film can be a tricky thing. You walk a fine line between anticlimax and melodrama, with one wrong step set to see you topple from a great height. 'Manchester By The Sea' dares to step up on the high wire, with a handful of superb actors, a moving concept, and a harsh yet exquisite environment in which the drama plays out. Can the film keep one foot in front of the other, or does it plummet into mediocrity?
Lee (Casey Affleck, 'Triple 9', 'The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford') has left his old life behind and shut himself away from the world after a messy ending to his marriage with Randi (Michelle Williams, 'My Week with Marilyn', 'Blue Valentine'). However, he's forced to return to his hometown after the death of his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler, 'The Wolf of Wall Street', 'Zero Dark Thirty'). Lee is surprised to discover that it was his brother's dying wish for him to become legal guardian to his teenage son Patrick (Lucas Hedges, U.S. remake of 'The Slap', 'Kill The Messenger'), but can Lee look after himself, let alone another person?
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'Manchester By The Sea' is a good movie, but not a great movie. It has a lot going for it - it has plenty of potential for emotion, a great cast, and a beautiful setting - yet there's a lot which is problematic with the film also. Despite these award-winning actors, there is no one character who you're willing to invest in; Lee comes off as a lonely, angry man before his brother's death, and sees no reason to change after the fact. Patrick seems like a relatable character - that is, until we get to know him, and discover he's just another ordinary astringent teenager. Nobody seems to have all that much of a problem that Joe has died - they say grief affects people differently, but there's almost no emotional response whatsoever to this information, and when there is, it's seems overdramatic and overplayed. And director Kenneth Lonergan delivers work only marginally more exciting than the "cinematic bus crash" which was his previous film 'Margaret'. Here he seems to be playing with realism to the extreme, having characters consistently speaking over the top of each other in numerous scenes, which more often than not comes off as awkward.
Despite these award-winning actors, there is no one character who you're willing to invest in.
That realism continues in the cinematography, portraying the American town of Manchester as bleak and sparse, with great beauty particularly in its use of wide shots. However, we linger too long on some details - a problem which holds a larger issue for the script, as it begins to overstay its welcome. Past the adaptation to life following the death of Joe, there is little in the way of growth, meaning we bear witness to the same tropes again and again. The further in we go, the more obvious the score becomes, vexingly so.
'Manchester By The Sea' doesn't deserve the six Academy Awards nominations it has garnered. It most certainly does not deserve to be judged against such monumentally affecting films such as 'La La Land' and 'Moonlight'. It's a shame, because with a more disciplined script, tighter editing and characters who aren't so abrasive and immovable, this could have been a truly touching story.