Movie Review: Manchester by the Sea


February is a busy time in Hong Kong for cinephiles. It’s the month when almost every film that’s either up for or has already won a major award comes to our cinema screens. Blink once and you miss them. With online piracy being so rampant here, I’ve never understood the cinema operators’ policy to hold these films back for so long. Sure, they want to piggyback on all the publicity these films are receiving around the world but by the time the films arrive, many people have already seen them. Even law-abiding, purist cinephiles in Hong Kong find it challenging. Other cities in the region often release films weeks before our city does. I was in Bangkok in January and I saw JACKIE there. It arrived here a few weeks later. Oscar® nominee, HELL OR HIGH WATER, isn’t scheduled to come here until April yet it was released in Taiwan last September. FENCES, another multiple award nominee, hasn’t been picked up by any distributor here (and you can speculate why) so who knows when it will show up at the cinema. For a city that bills itself as “Asia’s World City”, it’s not “world city” at all when it comes to movies.

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA is another multiple award nominee that has thankfully and finally reached our shores. Rightly nominated for six Oscars, it tells the story of Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck, THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD), an apartment custodian in suburban Boston who learns that he has become his nephew’s sole guardian after his older brother passes away.

Lee is focused at his job but he’s not the friendliest of custodians. When one of his tenants offers him a tip for fixing her light, he reluctantly accepts it. When another, provocatively dressed, tenant comes onto him in her bathroom, he spurns her rather unceremoniously. Lee is all business. It’s clear early on that Lee is a broken soul and, as the story slowly unfolds, we find out why.

His self-imposed solitary life is thrown into disarray when his older brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler, CAROL), dies of congestive heart failure. It doesn’t come as a complete surprise as the doctor had warned the family years earlier of Joe’s medical condition, but what does surprise Lee is that Joe has named him as his 16-year-old nephew’s guardian. Like his uncle, Patrick (Lucas Hedges, THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL) also has issues but his are closer to the surface. His father divorced his mother after he found her passed out drunk one too many times. Like Lee, she has also moved away from Manchester by the Sea, trying to rebuild her life in nearby Exeter, New Hampshire. Patrick, who was once a happy child, clearly hasn’t forgiven either of his parents for their failed marriage. Now he’s just a moody teenager with raging hormones and no one to keep him in check.

While Lee’s return to his coastal hometown forces him to deal with his brother’s death and his nephew’s guardianship, he also has to face his former neighbours and his own ex-wife, Randi (Michelle Williams, MY WEEK WITH MARILYN), who is just as wounded as he is. Their meeting brings back heartbreaking memories that Lee would prefer to stay buried deep inside him.

With all this misery, it’s easy to think that MBTS is a complete downer but it’s not. Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan (YOU CAN COUNT ON ME) has created a devastatingly powerful story that is infused with the humour and wit that can be found in everyday conversations and situations. One of my big beefs with Hollywood films is that the endings often come tied up with neat bows. MBTS doesn’t and that’s good because life’s problems don’t always have perfect resolutions. Sometimes we have to live with an imperfect solution either because it works or because it’s easier that way. For the Chandlers, both current and ex, it’s not a healthy way to live but that’s what they do. Dr. Phil would have plenty to say about them.

For Affleck, this is his best work yet and his Oscar® nomination for Best Actor is well deserved. (I’ll be watching FENCES, starring Denzel Washington, later this week so I’ll weigh in on his chances of taking home the statuette then. For now, though, my vote is with Affleck.) Hedges and Williams are equally fabulous. They have both been nominated for Oscars for their supporting roles too. (I doubt either will win because they’re both up against stiff competition.)

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA is a must-see film… preferably legally!

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