Things I’m thankful for today:

  1. Asher’s and Judah’s help (as well as enthusiasm in helping) with the recycling this morning.
  2. I raked up all the remaining gumballs in the front and back yards. The weather was perfect for it.
  3. The motivation to write this review, the motivation to do another constructive activity it’s not quite safe to mention here, and a special gift from Diana that it is most definitely not safe to mention here.

The Oscars aired last Sunday night. While it’s known for going long, it felt like the Academy, in recent years, had tried to move it right along, in response to criticism as well as mockery of its running time. Apparently they either forgot or didn’t care this year, as the telecast was around 4 hours long, and Asher hung in there for the duration. I had thought he’d give it up long before, especially since he knows he’s too young to watch most of the nominees. No, he stuck it out, but he lost interest right before the best-picture debacle. Anyway, for some reason I had expected Ryan Gosling to win best actor for La La Land, probably because it had been forecast that La La Land would win everything. I was pleasantly surprised to see Casey Affleck win it instead. I had always admired his acting, even in movies I didn’t particularly enjoy or appreciate. (The Killer Inside Me comes immediately to mind.) His characters have an embittered manner. Even when they act out in rage, they seem to be mumbling and dKeyisaffected, neither comfortable in their skin nor confident in their emotions. He manages to speak without moving his lower lip much. He seems hurt by life, but also seems to feel it’s his fault, that it was his due.

This manner suits his character in Manchester by the Sea better than any other character he’s played, and the Oscar is well-earned. The film is a study in grief from writer/director Kenneth Lonergan, best known for his critical gem You Can Count on Me (2000). Lonergan has only three movies to his credit as a director. He doesn’t do it often, but when he does, it makes a heck of an impact. Affleck plays Lee Chandler, the resident custodian and maintenance man for an apartment complex. He lives in a tiny basement apartment. He’s more than happy to do what he can to fix appliances, unclog toilets, and address plumbing problems, but he resists friendly human interaction and has no patience for residents’ complaints. He is terminally unhappy, and the comedy underlying some of the early scenes gives the feel of a sardonic study of a life, but we also see in the flashback that opens the movie, where Lee is fishing with his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) and nephew Patrick (played as a teenager by Oscar nominee Lucas Hedges), that Lee was once a happy man. Something has happened to change that, and we know Lonergan will eventually tell us what.

One day, Lee receives a phone call that his brother Joe has died. Flashbacks tell us this was not unexpected. Lee now has the burden of handling Joe’s funeral arrangements as well as looking after Patrick. The boy’s mother has been persona non grata for some years. (We later learn she had a drug problem she has since kicked, replacing that addition with zealous religion, which seems equally as harmful.) A couple days after Joe’s death, Joe’s lawyer brings Lee in for a reading of the will, where it is revealed that Joe wanted Lee to have custody of Patrick. Lee loves the boy; the two have almost a brotherly relationship typical of cinematic Bostonians–they bust each other’s chops and gripe at each other regularly with constant profanity–and while he cares for Patrick’s welfare and is capable of looking after him with the funds Joe has provided for his care, he feels paralyzed by the notion of looking after him. It is during the reading of the will that the tragedy that shaped Lee into his current state is finally revealed, and it packs an enormous punch–easily the second saddest scene I have ever watched. (The majority of the running time of the excellent Belgian film The Broken Circle Breakdown still reigns as the saddest movie I’ve seen.) Earlier flashbacks have hinted at this; we know Lee was married and has a family, and we know he has lost them. When we find out how, it casts the plot and Affleck’s performance in a new light. He is stuck in his grief, and the film, ultimately, is a tale of his inability to forgive himself. The flashbacks to the tragedy are interspersed with Lee thinking over what the attorney has just told him. The editing here is rapid at first, quit cuts back and forth between the fateful night and Lee feeling a sharp pain he hasn’t felt in a while, then it plants us firmly in the horror.

Lonergan earned a best screenplay Oscar for the film, and your opinion of whether he deserved it depends on how successfully you think he handles the theme of grief in this film. It is not an easy watch, not simply because of the tragedy but also because of the lack of an easy resolution. Some viewers have called the film depressing, even pointlessly so, and I think it’s because Lonergan plays his cards close to his chest. Does Lee overcome his grief? Are there any clues along the way that he’s making progress? Will he ever forgive himself and let people in? I was fascinated by the character study. Affleck perfectly conveys Lee’s pain in the various encounters where it is incumbent on him to say something to express what’s inside as others generously reach out to him, trying to comfort him or offer him absolution. There are some brilliant scenes with his wife Randi (Michelle Williams), years after the tragedy, when she pours out her heart to him, achingly telling him both that she forgives and loves him and pleads with him to let himself go and move forward, and he almost gives in and breaks down as he has needed to for so long, but he stops short, leaving Randi in her pain for him. I can appreciate what’s happening here because I’ve been there myself. I’ve never endured such incredible tragedy as Lee has, but the smaller disappointments, failures, and hurts for which we daily must make the choice to forgive ourselves nevertheless carry an incredible weight. When do we overcome the self-anger and -hatred and do as those who love us would have us do? Are we doing it only for them? Is it selfish to do it for ourselves? Who remains to judge us once we have forgiven ourselves? Do we have the right to choose the salvation that’s offered, especially when those we have hurt have given us permission to do so?

I appreciate the movie for forcing me to wrestle with this, to look at Lee and say, compassionately, “There but for the grace of God go I.” I’m glad I waited a few days to review this, which allowed me to process it. Diana and I discussed it afterward. We’d watched it over the course of two nights. During the first night, she posted to Facebook that we were watching it, and the bipolar responses were immediate. Well, I should say “tri”polar–some loved it for some of the same reasons I’ve mentioned, some hated it for its bleakness, and some hated the f-bombs. The third opinion is invalid, as resources are legion for determining whether or not you should watch a movie based on its content. IMDb, for instance, is a great source. People even typically tally how many f-words are spoken, in case your threshold is a dozen or so. Do your homework, people. Anyway, I consider it a harbinger of a good movie that it can divide people this way. It provokes thought and reaction. Diana was somewhat discomfited by the lack of resolution, but she’s not the type of viewer to always demand it. I believe it just didn’t communicate satisfactorily what Lee’s direction will be from this point. I feel that’s part of its strength, however. If this angers us, it should. If it saddens us, it should. We openly feel what he chooses to bury, to his detriment, and because of this quality in ourselves we experience health, healing, and wholeness in our relationships.

Did I mention the movie is often funny? It is, sometimes even in the midst of the tragedy. There is an absurdly comic moment as paramedics try and fail to load a stretcher into an ambulance during the movie’s darkest moment, and Lee has to help in the middle of witnessing the very thing that breaks him. We’d laugh if we weren’t crying, and it’s moments like this that demonstrate Lonergan effectively capturing life. Absurdities happen unfairly when they shouldn’t, destroying the devastating beauty of our saddest moments. Many of the comic moments arise from the natural banter between Lee and Patrick, such as when Patrick asks Lee what he did to his hand after Lee injured it when he punched out a window. Lee says, “I cut it.” Patrick replies, “Oh. For a minute there I didn’t know what happened.” They’ve been talking this way to each other Patrick’s whole life. Why would they stop even during Patrick’s toughest moments?

If you can stomach the tragedy (and, yes, the f-word), you owe it yourself to see Manchester, for an excellent study of the craft if for nothing else.

Rating: 5/5