When I reviewed the campaign for Manchester By The Sea last year the movie was already well heralded thanks to rapturous praise coming out of Sundance and other screenings. It was a hit at that festival and was quickly snapped up by Amazon Studios, who made it one of its centerpiece releases, going on to win multiple awards both as a whole and specifically for star Casey Affleck’s performance.
In the movie Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a janitor in Boston who’s called back to the small town of Manchester By The Sea after the death of his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler), mostly to be the guardian of Patrick (Lucas Hedges), Joe’s only son. With Patrick’s mother out of the picture because of substance abuse and mental health issues, Lee is the best choice but he bucks against that role. Mostly that’s because his history in the town, involving a tragedy involving his own family and a contentious divorce from his wife Randi (Michelle Williams) have branded him somewhat of a pariah in the town. Lee wants to bring Patrick back with him to Boston, but Patrick understandably wants to stay near his friends and the rest of his life.
When the movie immediately ended my reaction was similar to my impression of the marketing, which is that there’s a lot of emotion on display here. It may not always be the most obvious or overt or even relatable, but I felt the conflict between the characters and sympathized to some extent with the predicament they all found themselves in.
That feeling did not last long, though. The more I rolled the movie around in my head and thought about the characters and their motivations, the more problems I had with the whole package.
Sure, Lee is apparently unwanted in Manchester, which makes deciding to move there to care for Patrick difficult. That’s understandable. But there’s no effort made by Lee to find any third alternative between “Boston, but Patrick is miserable” and “Manchester, but Lee can’t hide his shame.” There’s got to be a middle ground between those extremes but in an effort to make the painful emotions as amped-up as possible, the story never explores it. It’s all or nothing. I get that binary choices result in increased tension, but this takes it to a level that makes suspension of disbelief tenuous.
Despite my issues with it, it’s not as if the story was misrepresented in the campaign. It clearly and accurately showed the position Lee is in, though it of course doesn’t reveal what it is that makes Manchester a non-viable option for him personally. If there’s any issue I have with the campaign as whole it’s that it slightly over-emphasized the relationship between Lee and his ex-wife Randi. That was the primary message of the one-sheet and was the subject of a clip released before release that spoiled one of the key emotional moments of the story. While that relationship is certainly important, it’s most often subtext to other events, not something that’s regularly front-and-center.