December 18, 2016



Kenneth Lonergan, writer-director of the Oscar-buzzy, Amazon Studios' "Manchester By the Sea," is a playwright, and his films reflect that: minute detail to human discourse and a wallowing in emotionally-charged depths. Lonergan's mother is Jewish and his father is Irish--and I'm going to assume he was brought up Irish-Catholic because MBS really nails that milieu. Although from New York City, Lonergan wholeheartedly enters the Boston experience (as do the actors with their mostly accurate Boston accents, inflections and attitudes). Michelle Williams, in particular, grasps the cadence and projects the air of a native--consummate actress that she is.


Why dwell on the writer-director? Because the nature of this still, little, indie-feeling tragicomedy points back to the writer at all moments. We're not used to such exposed, realistic dialogue--not delivered in hyper-reality or with perfectly polished forethought--where people constantly talk through each other and cut each other's sentences off. Nor are we used to this true-to-life, regional Bostonspeak (phrases like "skip it," "wicked retahdid," and "f***ing morons" constantly bandied about). There is a very distinctive way that people joke around in Boston, especially guys when they get together, and MBS puts it on full--but naturalistic--display. There's a certain Boston look in the eye, carriage, a certain set of face that shines through with flying colors here. And now, the story.

Lee (Casey Affleck) is a janitor in Boston. He's asocial and shut down. (People who know nothing about the story are better off, as his backstory is oh-so-gradually revealed through constant and seamless flashbacks.) There is an underlying hilarity to everything this thinly-but-well-drawn character says or does, even though we don't know why he is the way he is yet. This is great, lean writing and acting. My guess is the first scenes were actually shot first because it takes a while for the pace to materialize and it's a mite too slow and staring in the beginning.


We begin to piece together that Lee and his brother, Joe (a winning Kyle Chandler), grew up in Manchester By the Sea, a coastal town about 30 miles north of Boston. They spent significant time together on a fishing boat, and we see Lee messing around with Joe's son, Patrick, between whom there is obvious affection. So what changed it all? All I'm going to say is that Joe had a bad heart, and tragedy ensues. Lee is called back to Manchester to be his nephew's legal guardian. But why did Lee leave in the first place? Why is he now so different from the lovable goofball we saw on the boat? Where are the women (are there any wives or mothers or girlfriends in Lee or Joe's lives)? Why did Joe choose Lee to look after his son?


Patrick's life is in instant upheaval, needless to say. But, like so many Millennials/Gen Z-ers today who carry heavy burdens, he keeps it all together on the outside, hardly showing any grief. Yet when something normal, natural and human touches him, it's psychologized, it's "wrong," it can't be owned or felt or lived, it must be distanced, categorized, controlled and manipulated. He's on two sports teams, has two girlfriends and is in a band. Patrick is played by the seasoned Lucas Hedges (also from NYC, he hails from a grand old Christian family and more recently an arts family. Lucas is clearly enjoying himself in this role for which he is more than suited). Patrick carries himself with the air of an aristocrat or an operator or just a quintessential entitled young American. Any which way, he's going to be fine. It's Lee we're worried about. Now that he's back in Manchester, people gawk and whisper. He never wanted to come back. He's forced to face old ghosts.

MBS is a story about life's worst tragedies and death hanging over everything. Lee sometimes drinks and fights away his sorrows. We are laughing constantly at the humor in just about every scene, despite the ever-present Cross. Often, our characters even appreciate the humor with us. But it's easier for us to observe than for them to endure. I also cried several times as did my packed theater.
There were a few false notes of reactions, or rather non-reactions. Even though the grief was stuffed down, I found myself thinking a few times: no one would say that, act like that, react like that (including minor characters).


My one grievance with the film is the persistently cavalier attitude toward teenage sex (realistic as that may be)."'Cuz no one's getting hurt, right? 'Cuz the body and sex are meaningless, right? And we'd better establish that in our tender years, right?" The adults are such a failure here, including the aged adults in my theater, whom, I venture, for the most part did NOT treat sex this way as youths. "But we've gotta be hip and yuk it up, right? And condoms solve all sexual and relationship problems, right? And no one will ever, ever, ever get pregnant if you use condoms, right? 'Cuz times have changed and this is how it is now and we just have to accept it 'cuz no harm is being done and we were silly NOT to have random sex in our bedrooms at home when we were teens and the kids are just having fun and it's just so funny, right?" We have really, really, really failed young people. THEOLOGY. OF. THE. BODY.


The soundtrack choices are unique. Lots of classical music, opera, chamber music and a few sung jazz pieces. But it works.

In the end, the actors are not being precious and precocious and the film is not "insisting upon itself." You will enter the film without realizing it and find it hard to get out of it when the credits roll, but you will be thankful for the continuum of family in your life, such as they are.


--There could easily have been many more F-bombs, but they were judiciously placed. :)

--Casey is great. I heard it stated recently: "Ben (Affleck) is a movie star. Casey is an actor." He has that unnerving looking straight past the camera and not blinking mojo--felt keenly in a soap-opera-close-up-no-quick-cut-aways film like MBS.

--Lee was unhappy. Miserable. But still alive. That's heroism.

--Sooooo Boston: driving angry, mumbling and talking in bunches, honed brevity of speech and interactions when the occasion is momentous and calls for more,  overreacting to every little thing, talking too loudly, dropping the "g" on every "ing" word....

--Dear People Behind Me in Theater Who Think Movie-Going Is a Time for Catching Up with Friends,
Go. To. A. Coffee. Shop. Silence during contemplative movies is for just that: CONTEMPLATION. Stop talking and let the film sink into your soul instead of slipping off the surface of your contact lenses.
(We need silent theaters like silent cars on commuter trains.)

--The (non-graphic) teen sex scenes made me realize something: How young it starts (with the tacit aid of parents/adults). What starts? The shallow, callous, trite, mechanical, uncaring, male-centric, banal, reductionist, utilitarian, hedonistic, consumeristic, functional, subhuman approach to that part of our lives where we give and receive love and life at the deepest level and which is all tied up with God who is Love and Life and Desire and all tied up with our destiny and our vocation and getting us to heaven.

--Casey Affleck looks and sounds like JFK sometimes. 

--Casey's eyes are incredibly, incredibly emotive. All the acting is right there and in his hunched over comportment and gait.

--Several brilliant, lengthy, wordless sequences (at least one in slo-mo) that convey so much. (Kind of like the "Up" infertility and death of wife sequence.)

--"I can't beat it."

--"You know Catholics are Christians, right?"

--In the end, this is a buddy movie: Lee and Patrick.

--One of the quietest, simplest endings to a film.

December 6, 2016


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