Review: Manchester by the Sea

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When the Oscars nominations were revealed it was a pretty boring and predictable list. There were a few surprises, like the unfortunate snub of Amy Adams who delivered a supreme performance in Arrival, as well as Silence, which maintained its silence pretty much throughout the whole award season. 90% of the nominees match those on the predicted lists of film critics and media.  La La Land and Moonlight continued their tight race with 14 and 8 nominations respectively, and along with the most competitive field of leading actresses in recent years, these two films dominate the discussion.

I, on the other hand, would like to call attention to the issues surrounding Manchester by the Sea, which I harbor complicated feelings for. Leaving aside Casey Affleck’s lawsuits, I simply find Manchester by the Sea an overrated, melodramatic and boring film, merely saved by supreme performances from the cast. The acclaimed French cinema magazine Cahiers du Cinema apparently shares similar views with me, for it rated the film as one star, criticizing it as “a sort of quiet monster compiling all the tricks of American cinema.”

Affleck, Michelle Williams and Lucas Hedges (a young rising star to be watched) absolutely deserve their Oscar nominations. Without their intimate, heart-wrenching and multi-layered performances, Manchester by the Sea would be nothing but a third-rate soap opera set against the backdrop of a wintry small town which reminded me of over-filtered Instagram photos with hashtags like “travel,” “vacation” or simply “picoftheday.”

Affleck’s character Lee is a suffering anti-hero who refuses to “beat it” and move on, but rather chooses self-isolation and loneliness. It’s a refreshing departure from cinematic clichés of PTSD sufferers triumphing over their trauma. His vulnerability and faults belong to human beings in daily life, not just a character in cinema. In a memorable scene near the end of the film, all Lee’s repressed emotions burst out during a brief confrontation with his ex-wife (played by Williams). The audience is left with the bitter taste of emptiness and impotence with Lee’s repeated statement of “there’s nothing…”

Despite her short screen time, Williams’ solid performance acts as a foil to the hero Lee, earning the audience’s tears as we see how she attempts to move on while Lee continues to live in the personal hell he created to punish himself. Lucas Hedges also shines as the sensitive teenage nephew who is forced to grow up quickly due to family circumstances, attempting to reach out to his uncle for warmth and comfort. Hedges embodies this combination of maturity and childishness in a delicate performance beyond his years, offering the audience some memorable scenes with Affleck. His unexpected breakdown in front of the freezer alone is Oscar-worthy.

Even after all the praise of the cast’s acting, Manchester by the Sea is still far from the ranks of masterpieces. Its sentimental music, carefully-constructed recurring motifs, and deliberate imitation of the style of Japanese family drama (particularly Hirokazu Koreeda’s Our Little Sister) gave me the sense of an artificial melodrama. The film seems to be exploring human emotions in depth, but ultimately lacks the sincerity of real arthouse films.

Photograph: Panther

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