Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester by the Sea” has been unfairly labeled a “depressing” movie. Its star, Casey Affleck, even referred to it as “incredibly depressing” when he hosted “Saturday Night Live” last December.
It’s an unfortunate tag that sells short a singular film that is in fact complex, illuminating and thrillingly alive. No other film up for best picture (except “Moonlight”) even comes close.
Yes, its characters — working-class people in a small New England fishing town — are dealing with tragedy, but Lonergan refuses to boil each of them down to one or two easily defined traits.
Affleck is Lee, a mostly inarticulate Boston handyman who returns to his hometown to tie up the loose ends of his recently deceased brother. Lee carries a lot of darkness around with him and has a hair trigger temper when he’s drunk. His bitter edge also allows him to see B.S. for what it is, which provides some of the movie’s surprisingly funny moments. (There’s also a little-talked-about streak of gallows humor throughout.)
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His high-school-aged nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), had been expecting his father’s death for some time. He’s grieving, for sure, but his busy life goes on. Affleck and Hedges are nominated in the acting categories because they bring an enormous amount of depth to their roles. Lonergan’s observational storytelling style means that what’s being said out loud is rarely what’s actually going on, so subtext is everything. In most movies, the characters exist to move the plot forward. In “Manchester by the Sea,” the characters are everything.
And then there’s The Scene: Michelle Williams is a key reason the movie achieves a sublime profoundness, and I think she earned a supporting actress nomination based mostly on those seven or so minutes. She’s Lee’s ex-wife, and there’s an agonizing distance between them. As she musters up an immense amount of courage to bridge that gap, he struggles to deal with the fact that she’s doing it, retreating in fits and starts. There’s so much unspoken pain on display, and the investment in the characters is so deep at that point that it left me breathless. It’s probably the single most powerful moment onscreen in the last five years, and it’s also one of the quietest.
Movies that revel in the minute details of what it’s like to be human are rarely the ones that win best picture. This one should.
Where other films flaunt how loud and showy they are, “Manchester by the Sea” finds beauty in the everyday and illuminates the complexity of simply being human.
Eric Melin is a co-founder of the Kansas City-based movie review website scene-stealers.com.