This is only the third film I’ve personally seen Casey Affleck in outside of the Oceans Eleven trilogy (although I do not remember his role in those films), and I can easily say this Casey had me a little concerned he was actually experiencing some kind of depression during this film—but I say this as a compliment to his portrayal of Lee in “Manchester By the Sea,” a film about loss, family, and the brittle reality of watching life trickle down the spectacles of self-deprecation.
Make no mistake, this movie runs at the rhythm of watching paint dry. But we’re talking about complementary high-grade paint. What I appreciated about the snail-race pace is that it helped embody the sensation of everything slowing down, just as the reality might actually play out for characters such as these in such a sensitive situation.
When Lee learns of the death in his family, his already nonchalant character sheds one more layer of its purpose away in the desultory extremes of subtle grief and inner agony. His backstory (which is implied was only back some years) eventually reveals where his self-deflation began, and why he walks around with such glumness in his eyes. This sets up a layer of empathy for the viewer, and also creates the appropriate palette for the dry humor to come later. The remaining portions of the film are used with sensitive consideration to explaining “what happens next” with both Lee and his younger brother, Aaron (played by Patrick Hedges), as well as the remainder of a family left like delicate debris in the wake of a tornado.
About half-way through into 2/3 of the film, the humor really picked up for me and I found myself laughing at some of the darkest but most empathetic humor related to such a broken-heart stricken family. Most of the humor is admittedly derived from the cringe-worthy social ineptitudes of Lee. There are also many scenes where the dryness of reality is expressed so unapologetically as to be risible. One such moment happens when Lee is giving Aaron a chance to decide whether or not he wants to get out of the car, to which Aaron replies “Let’s just go.” The ambiguity of this moment propels Lee to begin driving away while Aaron opens the door, and the amalgam of Lee’s panic with Aaron’s surprise opens the space for humor which can only be appreciated when understanding each character’s motivation and perspective. Truly, this brief authentic moment was implemented so naturally that it became the first laugh out loud moment of the film for me.
The heart of this story is not-so-ironically found in Lee’s depressive state of mind, drawn out but seasoned with carefully chosen dryness and good intentions. The message of this film, which is not as obvious as it is subjective to the viewer watching, claims itself during the in-betweens of the story, finding itself not encouraging or motivating, but simply speaking and waiting. “Manchester” speaks, it listens, and waits—and if you laugh, it smiles. When you wait pensively for the next moment to take over, it blinks and keeps going. The heart of “Manchester” is simply that it has heart, defined by its authenticity and commitment to telling itself without asking whether or not you mind.
What I enjoyed about this film were the nuanced relationships. There are so many familial relationships that, whether throwing curveballs or drawing tears—so much can be appreciated about the rawness of emotion drawn from each conversation; the sentiment of desire for healing and restoration when the floodgates of pain and self-deprecation push back with the brute force of self-denial. Lee’s portrayal in particular is breathtakingly painful to watch, and in this nerve-pinching portrayal is a beauty not demanding emotion, but nevertheless forcing it from you simultaneously.
“Manchester” contains a pervasive amount of F-words throughout—so much so that most of the R-rating simply applies to the vulgarity. There are two brief bar fights that, while in some ways provoke laughter, are violent due to the thematic understanding of their context; insofar that the story behind each scene develops in-between, which would need explanation to a young child. The theme of sexuality is also played with in multiple scenes involving teenagers and is heavily insinuated. Two such scenes reveal teenagers bared down to their underwear; therefore, this is ample reason to warn parents from making the mistake of renting “Manchester” on Redbox, Netflix, Raku, or otherwise—and running into these scenes having to explain to young ones why you may believe this is appropriate for them to watch. While “Manchester” is simplified by its plot and relationships, its themes are mature, and for this reason I strongly urge parents to watch before deciding to allow younger kids to view, depending on how important you feel it is to shield your kids from exposure to promiscuous sexual behavior and vulgar language.
I would rate “Manchester By the Sea” 4/5 stars, given there isn’t really a strong message, but in place of a message there are a number of strong performances and an extremely relatable, poignant story.
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