Another one of those films that has made serious impact around Hollywood for the awards season, and one that slips in under the radar that many could miss. If people have missed this, they’ve missed one of the best drama’s in recent years and one of the most real, too, rooted down by solid performances and gorgeously shot locations.
First up, this is a drama built around tragedy. Or really, two tragedies. Or three, if you look at certain things in certain ways. It lays the first one out early one, and the second comes out the blue just as you’re settling into things to knock the stuffing out of you. The third could be underlying during the whole narrative. And the best thing about the handling of these real, emotive issues is that none are presented or laid on in an OTT way. No soaring soundtrack, no melodramatic acting, no invasive editing. It’s just…there. Real, on screen, and probably more restrained than you might expect, but in that sense makes for un-easy, emotional and very relatable watching.
Who says life’s ups and downs have to be portrayed as giant dramatic milestones? Why can’t we witness people reacting and handling grief in a way far more absorbing than just seeing them shout and scream and fight and laugh on screen? This is how Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges steal the show, because they just play it natural together. Uncle and nephew come together in a relationship that doesn’t have all the checklist of events you’d expect; they just get on with it. No obvious fall-out, no obvious breaking down – it’s just so real and so normal, they make a superb pairing.
Affleck shines as Lee, who comes across somewhat frustrating at first in his rigid and unpredictable ways, but soon you understand why he is the way he is and the layers start to become apparent in how he deals with day to day life. Affleck acts his socks off without making it look like he’s actually acting. Hedges too, our Hollywood newcomer, plays the grieving son with a perfect balance of frustration, warmth and emotional hurt.
We have solid support from the likes of Gretchen Mol, C.J Wilson and Tate Donovan who are factors in their grieving, but kudos to Michelle Williams as Lee’s ex-wife Randi. Williams may not have too much screen time, but the time she has forms the backbone to Lee’s journey as a husband, uncle and father. A superb, totally natural looking moment between Williams and Affleck during the final act is so beautifully acted and presented in its simplicity that it confirms the authentic feel of this drama is so much more when we are given less.
While the film toys with the non-linear narrative (not Tarantino-esque), it isn’t too hard to follow with moments inter-cut with the present to give scenes and characters more depth and understanding. It also flits between how scenes and messages are presented – moments of subtle and rather awkward humour are used that may make you question if you should chuckle or not, but, again, maybe in such dramatic times, humour is a natural relief for people and can be found in daily life no matter the situation. Maybe you, like our characters, need to be brave enough to laugh now and then.
Manchester-by-the-Sea frames the story itself with it’s gorgeous location. Snow covered sidewalks, choppy waters, old-fashioned houses and the eye-catching chapel all play host to our characters’ lives and, again, it’s a location free of manipulation or CGI enhancement – it’s naturally real, hence naturally beautiful, like the characters and the script.
The premise is moving and upsetting, as are a few moments peppered throughout, but this is not the emotional power-house I was expecting. Which is all good, because nothing is forced upon you to make you think “YOU MUST CRY NOW – LISTEN TO THE SOUNDTRACK AND LOOK AT HIM SOBBING!”. It’s all very tender and quiet, leaving you the option to be brave and shed a few tears, or swallow your emotion and push forward. It’s not what people may expect, but that’s a good thing because you probably expect one of ‘those’ dramas, an uncle-and-nephew bonding drama, or a melodramatic emotional drama.
It’s all of the above, but so much more. It’s a story as real as they come with wonderful performances, a nice lazy feeling to proceedings and an overall message of having faith in yourself and those around you.