This story was originally published on Medium.
The film, written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, took the headlines of films’ critics by describing it as one of the best movies of 2016. Amazon Studios bought the domestic rights of Manchester By The Sea, and made it available in the US in a limited release in theaters and then expanded it to various cinemas across the world.
So why is the movie such a success in storytelling, acting and overall as an audiovisual experience?
We are set in a drama that starts giving many clues in its fantastic and emotional trailer, which leaves the viewer with just enough information to be both excited and interested in the development of the story without knowing everything about it.
The first minutes of the film take care of introducing the audience to the main character, Lee (played in full majesty by Casey Affleck), and of presenting the trigger that sets events to follow. After some minutes, Lee faces what seems to be quite a life-changing tragedy, and as we advance in the story we find out through flashbacks that this is his second tragic experience involving the death of someone he loves.
Then we meet Patrick, Lee’s nephew portrayed by Lucas Hedges, a troubled teenager that is also portrayed as “normal” many times. And from there, it is mainly about these two characters dealing with the loss of someone they loved, but also about figuring out how to live together, how to move forward and accept reality.
Up to here, the movie would sound pretty basic, and in the writer and director Kenneth Lonergan’s words, it kind of is. But this is a movie that embraces a simple story and takes it to a whole new level thanks to its many successful elements.
The first elements I want to point out are characters and acting. Kenneth created characters that are so close to reality that I bet they are even more difficult to portray. That way, it is not only the situation that can seem like a pretty normal one but also the characters in it and the dialogues involved. All these things make of the characters interesting and relatable ones, guided by the cleverness of the lines of dialogue they have in their hands; these are not the typical dialogues you find in a movie, these sound like they were taken exactly from real life. The cast plays quite the part in this, you can see by reading the script that although most of the tones and portrayals were already written, the actors took and heightened the characters to make them even more powerful and real. Casey Affleck makes an outstanding job at using dialogue lines without sounding the same in all of them and yet without making it look as if it was a different Lee every time.
It wouldn’t be fair just to mention Casey though, whose character is indeed the central piece. Michelle Williams (who plays Randi), a supporting actress that doesn’t have much screen on time but that in the few shots she appears in, embeds a level of lightness, emotion and darkness that refreshes the whole story. There is also Lucas Hedges, the young actor who makes a perfect job in portraying adolescence the way it is: awkward, funny, hurtful, depressive and unknown. Lucas is a revelation and someone who will for sure shine in future projects. Finally, it is also worth mentioning the job done with the people of Manchester, because the different extras that appear contribute to the film making the audience feel part of this town.
The second element is the narrative structure and the way it is handled. This is a slow movie, and given its speed and the theme it deals with, it is not for the masses to like. Manchester By The Sea has a clear three acts structure and makes use of resources like flashbacks in a clever and touching way. They are divided in many, instead of being presented as a single one, and the objective of this is to both make a bigger impact on the audience but also to explain more in deep the struggles these characters are facing and the reason why they act the way they do.
As mentioned before, even though the movie is slow, the three acts structure makes the way for it to be understandable; and while the resolution could seem like a short one, it is precise and doesn’t get into more than it had to after all that had been told. That’s why the last two scenes, even if short, make probably for the most important part of the story, both in character and plot development.
This brings me to the third element…
The theme, with its importance as a drama and as a statement. Manchester By The Sea deals with grief, which is the main theme of the film, but it also deals with other struggles like depression, loneliness, and love. This is why the movie can seem like such a dark one for many people, who will prefer to go to the theater and watch a lighter movie. This story is important because it does not only portray all those “dark” emotions and situations but because it also enacts them mostly from the point of view of two men. It is not something that has to do with sexism, but it matters because it is often hidden how males deal with these kinds of emotions; it is still seen as something that we are not allowed to show or even feel.
Manchester By The Sea portrays both a really young man, Patrick, and a grown-up, Lee; while they deal with their grief, their own pains and even regrets, but also how they are needed of love from each other. As Lucas Hedges has said in many interviews, his character, Patrick, is mostly looking for love from his uncle; and the same can be said about Lee. We can see through the flashbacks that ever since Patrick was a child, Lee always worried about him and took him into his arms in an attempt to protect him, and in present-day it’s not that he doesn’t feel the same, he is just afraid to hurt him even more after all he’s been through. In the end, his biggest fear is losing Patrick. This is important to understand because Lee’s actions are not from someone who doesn’t care or who doesn’t want to be responsible, these are actions from a man that is broken and is afraid to break Patrick, to break himself completely by losing him.
Lee has already felt grief this way, and even worse. He has lost too much and when the time comes to face his brother’s legacy, he is too destroyed to be able to embrace it like someone is supposed to. He is still a human and therefore capable of loving, he knows that he can’t leave Patrick alone, he wouldn’t forgive himself if he did so. He sort of understands that his brother left Patrick on his charge for a reason, and such reason is redemption.
A drama, besides having close to real characters and dealing with internal struggles, is characterized by the fact that it presents redemption of some kind and degree, and this film is not an exception. Manchester By The Sea is capable of being dark and depressive but also funny and awkward plenty of times thanks to its close connection to reality, it delivers redemption even if it doesn’t present the “happily ever after” ending many films have. Because this is a reality, and the reality of this movie lays in the fact that there are things that are too painful and broken that never, not even in a million years, will be able to be forgotten or moved on from completely. The death of someone loved isn’t just something to get over, it also kills a little, or a lot, inside; and it only makes it worse when there’s a feeling of guilt and regret involved. Lee faces it all, he is not capable of really overcoming his past because it is too messed up, and that is okay, because ultimately it didn’t mean that he couldn’t be saved or enjoy life again, it just meant that he had to learn to live with it, and he found that through Patrick.
The last two or three scenes of the film are rectification of the characters in their core but also in their development throughout the story. On one side, Patrick is still someone who doesn’t have his future figured out, and that’s one of the reasons why he says he won’t go to college when Lee asks him about his future; it is also a sign of him still being broken inside. And this is not to say that not going to college means there are no goals or that the future doesn’t look bright but in the sense of taking all the elements that surround Patrick into account and seeing that this particular decision is a reflection of the unknown and broken of his life. This guy is also way more caring about his uncle than before: he asks him about the place he is moving to. And finally, he embraces doing normal daily life activities with Lee, which is important given that through the movie we see their relationship as one based on material or superficial needs, like Patrick needing his uncle to drive him somewhere; which is what changes at the end, he throws the baseball ball with Lee (I loved the reference of this scene with one from a flashback) and it also goes as far as to show both of them in the boat fishing, which is important in Manchester’s culture and their own.
On the other side is Lee, a man who was living without living, he just existed, and it is not like at the end he lives at its fullest or that he enjoys his life as a whole, but by still carrying the pain that he now knows won’t ever leave him, he is capable to see in his nephew another reason to love with less fear and to enjoy life through him. The biggest sign of Lee growing and finding redemption is him getting an apartment with an extra room, even when he won’t adopt Patrick; he doesn’t want to lose his nephew and contrary to what we see at the beginning of the movie, where Lee lived in a small room without space to receive anyone, now he is thinking of having Patrick come over to visit him and spend time together. He redeemed himself through Patrick and found a purpose again.
Manchester By The Sea is a statement about those dark moments that we, as humans, go through in life and how painful they are, how we can lose control; but most importantly it is about importance of the people around us and how, even if it is too messed up, there is always room for hope and redemption.