Kenneth Lonergan writes and directs Manchester by the Sea, a story about Lee Chandler facing his demons when he becomes guardian of his nephew, Patrick. Lee reviews this Best Picture nominee.
Filmmaking is such a fine balance it’s a marvel anything turns around well at all, let alone worthy of discussion on the same level we discuss good books, music or the news. There is just so much that can and, often, does go wrong. It’s easy to imagine the multitude of ways Manchester by the Sea could have messed up.
In presenting its character study of Lee Chandler, it could’ve tipped too far into the melodramatic by exaggerating his actions, his lash outs, without a dramatic build-up to each event or a musical cue to give us the heads up. It could’ve presented him as humourless, so that we never felt relief in the moments he manages not to be manic, lethargic or depressed. He could’ve been malicious, or spiteful; scorned or petty; unwilling to help or generally unfriendly to anyone, and then imagine trying to care about this person as we slowly uncover their past while pushing forward their difficult present.
In presenting Lee’s contrary, his antithesis in Patrick, imagine the introduction of after-mourning angst. Imagine a scenario where all he held was contempt for Lee, where the story focuses not on the conflict that arises from these two people wanting and expecting of each other different things, but from perceived notions of how teenagers are always a hassle to everyone and know nothing in the slightest about how to defend themselves, even if the short-term potential of a breakdown lingers unspoken underneath.
Imagine a story this sober and depressing not being equally hilarious, not playing on the fact that, even while grieving, people laugh and get into awkward situations with people they don’t have time for. Imagine the tone was off for even a second, and in fact the film turned to slapstick to ease tension rather than having the highs only ever hit middling at best and the lows be ever present and real.
Imagine an atmosphere that didn’t perfectly capture that uneasy balance between contentment and depression with its light blues and hazy greys. Imagine a supporting cast that didn’t simply add layers to the story but instead intruded upon and stole spotlight for tableaus that mean nothing to our character study.
Imagine a world less full of potential, where the conversations didn’t always hint to underlying history and small-town politics were never factored in. Imagine a subject matter played with more cynicism, with intention to provide simple answers rather than present an open case and explain, carefully and calmly, that there often are no simple resolves.
Imagine a director less patient, a cinematographer less reserved, a cast less enthusiastic for their parts, a soundtrack less hauntingly surreal, a screenplay with less natural dialogue, a story with clear villains and a sombre moral angle to capitalise on your pathos.
Thankfully, this is all speculative imagination. In reality, we have a film called Manchester by the Sea which is absolutely worth your time.