Is there anything worse than hype? After months of receiving congratulatory reviews from the press after a stunning debut screening, hyped movies largely end up failing to resonate with audiences upon release and disappointment kicking in almost immediately. Conversely, movies which receive extraordinary amounts of praise also have countless supporters who take offence at anybody who has a contrary opinion- hype makes movie fans vitriolic, whilst also dumbing down the conversation around a movie into strictly “love” and “hate” categories.
Manchester by the Sea is the film this awards season that seems most likely to stay beloved by film fans after all the hype dies down completely, even if it isn’t the strongest film in contention for the big prize. Kenneth Lonergan’s third directorial feature seems like a future classic because it feels timeless, both in setting and story. It is set in the modern day, but could just as easily be a period piece, due to balancing a believable portrayal of small town American life with characters whose tragic arcs date all the way back to Shakespeare.
Which isn’t to say Manchester by the Sea is without flaws; despite a distressing narrative, a reliance on broad comedic moments does undercut the dramatic tension in some scenes. In the most disturbing scene of all, a prior reliance on comedy directly before led to mass laughter among the audience in my screening, assuming that what unfolded was to be played as the darkest, bleakest joke imaginable. The audience aren’t entirely wrong- the tragedy is so extraordinarily and unrealistically depressing, it isn’t hard to laugh at the sheer ridiculousness of it in the same way you’d laugh at a Todd Solondz movie, for example. Kenneth Lonergan is an experienced playwright, but his gift for crafting dialogue and engaging character studies is defeated by a medium where his direction turns small scale tragedy into overblown silliness. The use of operatic music in many sequences also feels wrong for what should be a quaint, understated and quietly upsetting character drama.
These are minor quibbles in a film that features some of the best acting performances of the year. Casey Affleck gives his brother a run for his money in the “Sadfleck” stakes, delivering a career best performance in the process- defined by an understated depression, it is the rare performance that manages to capture and hold your attention despite being defined by a withdrawal of all emotion. In smaller, borderline cameo roles, Michelle Williams and Kyle Chandler manage to convey fully lived in characters with the little material they’ve been given. Most impressive is the breakthrough performance from Lucas Hedges, as the little shit nephew who deals with his trauma in more profane ways.
His wounds are always there to see, as his character also has an emotional detachment from his tragic living situation- he has two girlfriends and peppers all casual conversation with a healthy dose of sarcasm. When he has an emotional breakdown, it still manages to feel understated despite the fact he is the most energetic character in the piece: a true testament to Lonergan’s skill for getting terrific performances from his actors.
Manchester by the Sea is an engaging story on an emotional level, peppered with terrific performances. However, the film is also a testament to why Kenneth Lonergan is a better writer than he is a filmmaker, with many overblown sequences that make the tragedy of the narrative feel as laughable as all the one liners in the screenplay. The brutal emotions presented within show why it has packed a punch with so many critics and audiences- it’s just a shame the whole film couldn’t fully capture the understated emotional tone.