Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan captures the messiness and harshness of real life about as well as any contemporary artist I can think of. Critics of his latest, the highly regarded MANCHESTER BY THE SEA might say things like "Not my real life, these people are genuinely screwed up!" Er, something to that effect. They will also go to great lengths to explain how depressing this film is. One of my old friends even ranted on Facebook that she regrets the inability to "unsee" this movie, and sought suggestions as to what to watch to counteract this apparently negative experience. I offered A Very Brady Christmas.
I just have to feel sorry for folks when they can't appreciate such a fine and honest film. Many watch movies to escape from family drama and shitty jobs. MANCHESTER puts such things (and their internal drivers) front and center. I can understand the desire and even the necessity to immerse oneself in a brainless comedy, numbing action adventure, or formulaic romantic drama, especially when life has enough real tragedy. For me, great cinema is not an escape, but an essential extension of life. It lives and breathes and is part of my schedule. It's not some drug, although it can be addictive. I don't seek escape, I seek appreciation of what artists can create. Somewhat the way I appreciate fine cuisine. It's real, and it's essential.
Lest my Christian brethren think that film/art has become an idol for me, the argument can be made that awareness and understanding of the mysteries of faith can often be augmented by a thoughtful motion picture or novel. Or painting....or song...I've stated before that art is often what you bring to it, but whatever your background, it's hard to ignore the Christian imagery in a film like BREAKING THE WAVES or TO THE WONDER. MANCHESTER BY THE SEA has such elements, but can easily rather be taken simply as the story of a flawed guy who ultimately does the right thing. He of course suffers great tribulation beforehand. Forgiveness is bestowed by and upon him.
His sin? Sizable. Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) gets drunk and/or high one night and leaves a fireplace unattended as he goes out for beer. While his wife escapes the burning house, his three young children do not. That was in the past, seen (along with other significant events in Lee's life) in intermittent flashback. In the present, Lee, who is divorced and barely making a living in Boston as a maintenance guy, has returned to his hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea to attend to his brother's funeral. He carries the burdens of a lost family and gets into bar fights, for no apparent good reason. He does not seem to be a likely candidate to assume guardianship of his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges), despite his brother's mandate.
MANCHESTER BY THE SEA plays deliberately, with scene after scene detailing everyday life. Longeran (who has a perhaps gratuitous cameo) allows characters to misstep, to move about awkwardly like real people do, as when paramedics fumble with a gurney. This is a finely crafted movie, but simultaneously feels fly on the wall voyeuristic, capturing off the cuff and unrehearsed snapshots of life. It never feels overly directed.
There are big moments: Lee tries to commit suicide after being questioned by the police; Lee's ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams) tries to reconcile (a powerhouse of emotion), but most of the movie comfortably settles into the characters' routines. Hockey practice. Girlfriends. Maintenance of the old family boat. Things that are threatened by the death of Joe Chandler (Kyle Chandler). Sixteen year old Patrick does not want to leave his life in Manchester-by-the-Sea. Lee wants to take him back to Boston. There are too many unremittingly sad memories in the old town, and many of its residents have no interest in a man who's failed so awesomely.
Lonergan's use of classical music is tasteful, though occasionally overbearing. It almost becomes comical when the score crescendos over a serious scene. And despite the kvetches of many, there is humor in this movie, particularly as Patrick repeatedly tries to have relations with a girl at her mother's house. Or when that mother attempts to have a conversation with Lee. I laughed out loud at Matthew Broderick's unexpected entrance (he's appeared in all three of Longeran's films) though I don't think I was supposed to.
Regarding that - Broderick portrays the born again Christian fiance of Patrick's long lost alcoholic mother Elise (Gretchen Mol). A late scene involves Patrick's attempts to reunite with his newly sober mom. The meeting is painfully awkward, and may be interpreted by some viewers as a subtle knock on religious faith, though only by someone who does not look beyond surfaces. Longeran considers spirituality quite deeply, as in his previous YOU CAN COUNT ON ME and MARGARET. That alone makes his films worth watching, but the acting and genuine emotions are what involve you in the moment. The scenery in this movie is also quite lovely.