Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Choppy Sea

The Oscar nominations won't be announced until next month, but consensus is already forming around a few movies sure to be up for Best Picture. One of these is the somber Manchester By the Sea, which I saw last weekend.

Set in Massachusetts (as you'd expect from the title) Manchester By the Sea is the story of Lee Chandler, a man living a drab day-to-day life in the wake of a tremendous personal tragedy. As the story opens, yet another one arrives -- his brother dies of a heart attack, leaving behind a 16-year-old son and a will asking Lee to become the boy's legal guardian. The film follows Lee's struggle to put himself back together before he can even contemplate helping a teenager cope with his own grief.

Scattered throughout this film are many poignant vignettes of loss, and I imagine these have been striking many viewers in a powerful and true way. Some scenes depict long-repressed grief bubbling over in sudden bursts. Other scenes contrast different reactions to different kinds of loss: fixating on an object as a totem for keeping a loved one's memory alive, maintaining the routine one is expected to maintain, and (above all) deep-seated self-loathing.

While these moments are moving, I'm less convinced they add up to a compelling whole. It's a languidly paced film (at 137 minutes), and at the risk of saying too much about the plot, it doesn't really take the characters on much of a journey. The movie definitely has a point to make, and I'm not here to suggest that it should take an uplifting or redemptive view of death. But the story doesn't really take the characters (or the viewers) on a journey. Instead the movie kind of just goes from A to A.

A movie steeped in grief is, expectedly, going to be all about performance. Much praise has been lavished upon Casey Affleck's here, as Lee Chandler. It's a largely subdued take, with very few "Oscar reel" moments. It's being touted as a Best Actor frontrunner all the same, which I find a bit surprising on a number of levels. His work here doesn't feel appreciably "better" or more "career-defining" than, say, his work in the excellent Gone Baby Gone. It doesn't strike me as a performance than no other actor could have given. And I don't even think it's the strongest performance in the movie; I'd give that praise to young Lucas Hedges, who plays 16-year-old Patrick. (The cast also features Kyle Chandler, Michelle Williams, Gretchen Mol, and Matthew Broderick, though all of them are in supporting-at-best roles.)

It's possible that what's depicted in this movie will feel more familiar to some people than others. Those who make a more personal connection here may be the ones pushing the film into the Oscar conversation. But I felt its few strong moments weren't enough to forgive the whole. I'd give Manchester By the Sea a C-. I have many more Oscar contenders to see, but I'm already sure this won't be the one I'm championing for the win.

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