By Alexander Brown
2016 is getting a lot of flack for being a lousy year. Yes, some lovely, talented people passed on (as they do every year), and an election didn’t go the way many Americans wanted (as it does ever four years), but really, I don’t think 2016 was all for not because how can 2016 be so nefarious when even amidst all the doom, gloom, and social media meltdowns, it also happened to give us Kenneth Lonergan’s "Manchester by the Sea," the best film I’ve seen in years.
(Full disclosure: Nothing in here can be considered a major plot spoiler. I want you to enjoy the film as much as I did, and the less you know the better.)
Saying something is the best anything tends to read like empty, click-baiting hyperbole, but as far as dishing out accolades is concerned you’ll find far greater praise heaped upon the film if you take a quick run through Rotten Tomatoes, or if you simply ask a kind, older moviegoer—my kind of moviegoer—if they have seen any good matinees recently.
It’s a movie that feels so lived-in that characters forget where they parked their cars, phone service drops during crucial moments, and no two people are ever having the same conversation at once. It’s as if you’ve parachuted into a strange but familiar town for a few short weeks, only you keep coming across the same people in their day-to-day lives.
Our protagonist Lee Chandler—played sublimely by the more talented Affleck brother, Casey—is even taken out to buy furniture when his older brother Joe helps him move into a basement apartment in Boston, at a time in Lee’s life where he is choosing to live in exile and in constant penance for his actions. (I’ve never seen someone be gifted furniture on film before. It’s not exactly a white-knuckle moment but it’s funny and sweet and they add up, I swear.)
Even the town of Manchester-by-the-Sea serves as its own character. The early-winter winds coming off the North Atlantic rip through the scenery. School children talk about a performance of "Godspell" that the audience will never be shown. We witness a terrible high school band warming up for a gig that, thankfully, we will never see them play.
If that at all sounds dull it’s far from it. In fact, its main accomplishment may be that it takes what could be a rather traditional character drama and turns it into something much more profound. It’s so personal and honest it moves along with surprising inertia. It’s not so much a drama as it is a comedy. Not so much a comedy as it is an exercise in observational cinema, or cinéma vérité. Not so much an exercise in cinéma vérité as it is a stab at the Great American Novel.
There is grief but it’s not about grief. It’s sad without being melancholy. It’s funny without the jokes feeling crafted on. No grand transfigurations takes place, only those familiar little moments that make up a life set against the edge of the world overlooking the sea. We’ve seen stories like that before. Be it in a dog-eared copy of Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News, or, in a far more mainstream comparison, in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.
Late in the film we arrive at what traditionally should be the emotional catharsis of a film. Two characters meet and the stage is set for Lee to be unburdened, only he doesn’t want to have the conversation. He physically and mentally cannot do it, and you believe him. He leaves.
Nothing about that unique moment, or the dozens of personal, unpredictable encounters that came before it necessarily lends itself towards being a captivating viewing experience, but it is.
In my mind, that makes "Manchester by the Sea" far more than just a film.
That makes it literature.