Review: Manchester by the Sea

I didn’t connect with this film the way I thought I would. Manchester By The Sea was easily, before the trailer for Martin Scorsese’s Silence dropped, my most eagerly anticipated film for this year. And I saw it, and, although there were some not-to-be-ignored moments of genuine to-the-core impactful scenes, was kind of left feeling lukewarm about it.

The trailers show what appears to be a straight forward 90 minute drama about a man who has to deal with the burden of sudden guardianship of this kid he hasn’t seen in years. It is that, but that at times feels more like a B-plot to the actual driving force which is Casey Affleck’s tortured past and how he doesn’t really deal very well with it, or the reappearence of the kid, at all. Now, don’t write this off as a “misleading trailer ruined it for me” review. I was aware of the whole tortured past element going into it and I’m not sure if that perhaps was a good thing or a bad thing.

This is where I’m at: It’s been a few days since I saw Manchester and it’s still on my mind. Not because I’ve been pouring over all the thematic intricacies, but instead because I have been trying to pin down why I had such a strangely near-apathetic reaction to the vast majority of the film.

There’s a lot this film does brilliantly. Kenneth Lonergan, no doubt a masterful screenwriter, teamed with a lead cast including Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler and Lucas Hedges was always going to be a good mix. How this film handles grief is really moving; it’s worth the price of admission just for those scenes. Two scenes in particular stood out. One involves Casey Affleck flashing back to that previously mentioned past trauma, creating a sequence that’s the most moving and natural use of flashback since Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, and another showing Lucas Hedges for the future acting heavyweight he deserves to be. Hedges, totally believably and absolutely devastatingly, breaks down at the most mundane thing and we have no problem at all understanding why. So many of this film’s scenes are so natural and so original it almost makes you mad.

However, outside of those four main performers, a lot of the ancillary cast (particularly the teenage friends of Hedges) felt wooden and artificial in a way that didn’t gel with the rest of the film. The same goes for some of the film’s more “clichéd” Hollywood moments, and while cliché is not dirty word, here it indicates the uninspired aspects of Manchester. This film seemed to walk some awkward lines between a more definite “staged” theatrical feel, a raw independent movie, and a more classical Hollywood.

Kenneth Lonergan’s theatre background here feels far more obvious than the theatre backgrounds of Paddy Chayefsky or Aaron Sorkin or the three dozen other great playwrights-turned-screenwriters when watching a film of theirs. It’s these small moments in the film, most of them all side-jokes or otherwise arguably dispensable, that may not feel jarring or artificial to someone who gets theatre, but to me, someone who certainly doesn’t, it completely throws me.

Finally, as is probably clear by now, I have no idea how to look at this film. That’s the problem with early screenings. Once the arrogant masturbatory thrill of seeing it early wears off you’re left with the sinking feeling of Oh crap, I now have to make a coherent argument about something that definitely deserved more attention than I was able to give it on one screening at 9AM after a poor night’s sleep. So, see this film and see it twice, because I’m going to and it definitely deserves it. Walk out of the cinema and walk right back in, wait a week, wait a month, don’t care, see it twice.

 

Manchester by the Sea is in Australian cinemas from Thursday Feb 2nd. 

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Tom May

Tom May is a Melbourne based writer, filmmaker and essayist with a vast knowledge of video games, film and Thomas Pynchon. He has recently completed his Advanced Diploma in Film & Television at Footscray City Films. 

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