Thoroughly Modern Monday – Manchester by the Sea (2016)

The rest of New England’s professional sports franchises have done their fair share of damage, but the Patriots’ successes, and how they’ve succeeded over the last decade and a half have been enough to give outsiders a negative impression of New Englanders as a whole. Last night’s result hasn’t changed any of that – in fact, it probably made things worse. But amongst the fanbase and behind the blatant cheating are regular, salt of the earth people who might unabashedly revel in victory as a means of escape, though sometimes the demons that haunt us are too strong to keep repressed.

More than anything, Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea is about a man struggling to deal with his own. Though Lonergan’s protagonist Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), and every other character referring to him as the Lee Chandler, might know the source of his issues, he takes us on a journey to sit us back as he slowly brings all of the pieces together. The slow, gradual storytelling may turn off some, but the patient are rewarded with a bright combination of writing and performances that provides a keen eye for authenticity.

Grief is a powerful, complex emotion, and there’s more to it than an initial unwillingness to open up followed by the inevitable overflow of sadness which can finally lead to progress. Though the experience may be different for others, it ebbs and flows between both of those sides, and that understanding from Lonergan is matched by a similarly strong performance from Affleck. Though his Lee remains stone-faced throughout a majority of the picture, there are handfuls of scenes, most notably his tense discussion with his ex-wife Randy (Michelle Williams), where he is able to fully explore the nuances of loss without totally breaking that consistency of feeling. And whenever he does burst, it’s sudden enough to have an impact and organic enough that the moment feels genuine and universal.

The rest of the ensemble thrives in Lonergan’s material, as well. The emotional truth of Williams’s Randy resonates every time she appears on camera, and the rest of her peers in the Best Supporting Actress category have ample reason for worry she might swoop in and steal it from their grasp. Kyle Chandler’s Joe and Gretchen Mol’s Elise, even with the limited time the screenplay allots them, feel like members of our own family. But aside from Affleck, the big talk obviously surrounds Lucas Hedges. At just 20 years of age, he takes a firm command as Lee’s son Patrick, sometimes even appearing just as, if not more matured than his frequent counterpart, all while still communicating the simultaneous hope and resentful bitterness of youth.

The characters are well laid out, and the performances accompanying them are more than up to par, but what makes Lonergan’s screenplay wholly intriguing is its balance of humor. If someone could let me know if there is a particular brand of humor related to New England or the Northeastern United States, in general, feel free to let me know, because the way Lonergan writes it, it seems endemic to the area. Given the nature of the story, there is a melancholic undertone to the humor, but it isn’t gloomy in any sense. Mostly, it’s comedy bearing the semblance of lack of intention marked by frustration and misunderstanding. Quite often the line between sincere drama and humorous agitation is blurred, and that approach is engaging in spite of being relatively easy to pick out the punch lines.

Manchester by the Sea thrives on being devastating, especially considering we’re following a character who’s forced himself back to square one. Some may try to reduce Lee’s infrequent use of boorish masculinity as a poor excuse for self-pity, but sometimes you need to not just hit rock bottom, but crash land into it to identify the root sources of your pain. Healing is a confusing process, but it shouldn’t be impossible.

3.5/4

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