About a week ago, I watched Kenny Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea, a potential Oscar contender, which is–by a long shot–the saddest film I have ever watched. The story of Manchester is a beautifully constructed contemplation on the issues of guardianship, following an uncle and his nephew as the uncle decides, after his brother’s death, whether or not he is fit to raise his nephew.
Casey Affleck, the film’s star, has been slowly rising from the shadows, straying from his brother’s footsteps by taking roles in more independent films like Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (a movie I highly recommend) and his own documentary, I’m Still Here. Manchester by the Sea, however, is arguably the best of his films thus far, and Affleck’s acting has much to do with that.
He perfectly embodies the quiet brooder whose mystique people are often drawn to understand; this is the personality of Lee Chandler, the film’s uncle, who struggles to decide what to do with his nephew. Overall, the film questions why this decision is such a struggle for Chandler as his nephew only has 2 more years before he turns 18. In perfectly timed and emotionally jarring flashbacks, the film answers this question, exploring the responsibilities and difficulties of parenting and how one decision can change the progression and choices of your future.
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My favorite technique used in the film was the limiting of dialogue, which allowed for the incorporation of and emphasis on smaller sounds. It demonstrated the intensity noises, which you might give no attention to normally, can have in times of stress or intense emotional burden. In one scene, for example, Lee is in the kitchen on the phone with the funeral home when his nephew’s girlfriend comes in to make cereal. The sounds of the plastic cereal bag as she grabs it and the cereal pouring into her bowl begins to intrude on Lee’s conversation, which is particularly annoying to him and even more so to the viewer as their investment in the conversation is interrupted.
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Through moments like this, Lonergan puts emphasis on the emotion of a moment–the small things that we would notice, that would bother us, if we were in Chandler’s position–and as a result of this, the audience begins to feel the weight of Chandler’s struggle as if they were experiencing the pain alongside him.
What exactly it is that Manchester by the Sea taught me, I cannot yet say. It’s possible that I have been given a heightened sense of emotional awareness, but possibly, more than that, I think it has opened my eyes to the complications of life and the necessity of sympathy when these complications get the best of those around us. It demonstrates the beauty of camaraderie–of true friends–but also the horror of not being able to escape a past you did not mean to create.
I wouldn’t suggest this film to everyone, though I think there is something for everyone to attain from it. The subject matter may be too heavy for some or brushed off by others; however, Manchester by the Sea will give you back all that you invest in it.