Awards Season Chasing Oscar Movies

Chasing Oscar: Manchester by the Sea Brings Levity and Grace to Unspeakable Tragedy

The next entry in this year’s Chasing Oscar series: my thoughts on six-time nominee and Best Picture contender Manchester by the Sea.

Cliché it may be, but life really does go on. It pauses for no one and nothing, even against devastating loss.

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Manchester by the Sea, a freshly minted Best Picture Oscar nominee, deftly explores the tragic and the mundane in the life of Lee Chandler, a Boston handyman. Lee is awkward and sullen and paranoid, with a hair-trigger temper that leaves him susceptible to barfights. His humdrum existence is upended by the news of his older brother’s death, and Lee returns to his seaside hometown to handle his affairs, including his 16 year old nephew Patrick. We learn, through carefully fed flashbacks, about his life in Manchester, and the tragic reason why he left it behind. Amidst the memories, Lee makes funeral arrangements, plays the strong but grieving brother to the townsfolk and awkwardly reconnects with his ex-wife Randi, all while figuring out what to do with Patrick, an all-but-orphaned high school student who’s burying his own feelings of loss beneath sports, music and artless dalliances with two girlfriends.

Manchester by the Sea is sprinkled with little absurdities that let some much-needed air out of what could’ve been a suffocatingly depressing experience. The humor is understandably dark considering the plot, but it helps to ground the film’s twin tragedies in something real and relatable. You can appreciate the frustration of misplacing your car or having frozen food fall out of the freezer, relatively minor inconveniences that are compounded by the anguish beneath the surface. Even the film’s heaviest moments are shaded with farce, and Kenneth Lonergan does an excellent job balancing that levity with legitimate sorrow. Just as impressive is Lonergan’s restraint when capturing the trauma of his subjects. He uses the score masterfully to mask the most grief-stricken moments, affording his characters an admirable amount of intimacy with their misery, while also resisting the urge to delve into the melodramatic urges of lesser films. Never once does it feel like Lee or Patrick or Randi’s pain is exploited for cinematic gain, which is also to the credit to their portrayers. Their suffering is real and thoroughly felt.

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Casey Affleck, previously Oscar-nominated for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, will likely, and deservedly, take home the Best Actor trophy for his harrowing performance. He buries Lee’s trauma deep beneath layers of perceived indifference and deadpan sarcasm, but the scars are there, and Affleck is careful and intricate in how he exposes them. The flashback to Lee’s interview with the police about his family tragedy, where Affleck lays his torment bare before the audience, is astonishing and unforgettable. Lucas Hedges, a nominee for Best Supporting Actor, is a surprise as Patrick, serving as an excellent foil to Affleck while also conveying his character’s teenage dissonance and grief with aplomb. Michelle Williams doesn’t spend much time on screen, but she leaves a powerful and devastating impression as a woman on her own path of recovery from her and Lee’s shared pain. Her last scene with Affleck, an aching attempt to reach out to her ex-husband, is a magnificent display of love and regret that would clinch the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her any other year. Nonetheless, Williams’s performance solidifies her as a gem among her peers.

Manchester by the Sea is a strange, beautifully unique film. It is a meditation on the lasting effects of shattering personal pain, and also a touching tribute to the quirks of small town New England living. Anchored by three superlative performances, Lonergan crafts an emotionally resonant and surprisingly graceful work that is definitely deserving of its Best Picture nomination, and the award itself.

Coming up next: my unpopular opinion about 14-times nominated La La Land, my take on landmark Best Picture contender Moonlight, and whether I think Silence was wrongfully snubbed by the Academy.

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