Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea is another example of the quiet rebellion that’s happening in American film right now. Tim Oxley Smith uncovers why the film resonates with viewers, and where it is lacking.

This highly anticipated film adds to the tapestry of American flicks that root for the underdog while dramatising a discordant society.  In a similar vein to last year’s Hell or High Water and American Honey, Manchester by the Sea combines realism with the invisible evils of debt and uncertainty to catalogue a certain viewpoint on modern day America. And this would explain why it’s so, so gloomy a viewing. 

What’s it about?

We’re introduced to Lee (Casey Affleck), a lonely, slightly depressed bloke working as a janitor in a block of flats in Boston. We peer into his world during a typical working day as he attends the homes of tenants, the vibrant personality of each tenant highlighting the lack of his own. After the tone of the film is set, Lee is soon told his brother has suffered a heart attack back in his sleepy home town, Manchester by the Sea. By the time Lee has driven to the hospital, his brother has already passed away, leaving Lee as sole guardian of his nephew, Patrick.

With Patrick’s alcoholic mother out of the picture, Lee struggles to get on board with playing guardian while facing his own personal demons. And don't root for the euphoric moment where Lee and Patrick become best mates - it never comes. While Lee’s reluctance to take care of Patrick transpires, we drift in and out of Lee’s memories of Manchester, each one suggesting a little more about why he’s the awkward angry man he's become. 

What's the verdict?

Lonergan’s script feels like an adaptation of a little-known novel that only the well-read can claim to have finished. It’s an ugly turtle neck jumper of a movie; a slow, gruelling battle between Lee’s internal grief and a noble obligation to his family. Casey Affleck carries the film tremendously, despite playing a character who is unable to engage with those around him. This can be uncomfortable at times, and even a little bit tedious, yet it perfectly mirrors someone wallowing in grief.   

Despite the delicate examination of regret and loss, Lonergan’s direction is on the whole too subtle, leaving much for Affleck to do. Frustratingly, the film is a parable without any clear lesson apart from...life is cruel? The main image viewers take away from this film is one of a discontented America, captured by Affleck’s haunting performance. 

Still, it could be worse, and the subtle comic moments will invoke a (slight) smile or two.

Catch Manchester by the Sea at the Watershed. Definitely avoid on blue Mondays.


Published -20th January 2017