I love Independent Films. The topics are often quirkier and have more focused plotlines than mainstream, big budget films. Big budget films have a pressure to perform at the box office, so often have to rely on plot devices and flashiness to appeal to multiple audiences. This storytelling freedom in independent films often times leads to higher quality stories than the bigger budget ones.
Manchester by the Sea is the latest independent film to knock it out of the park. The story stars Casey Affleck as Lee, a janitor who works in Boston. He is emotionally disconnected from others and spends much of his time at work or at the bar by himself. His daily life changes when his brother dies and has to return to Manchester (a small town nearby) after his brother passes away unexpectedly. While he is there, he gets another surprise: his brother has left him as the guardian of this 16-year old nephew.
The movie starts off a bit slowly; the first several scenes are an extended look into Lee’s day to day activities. This technique, however, allows the audience to get to know who Lee is and feel like they are immersed in his life & not just watching it as moviegoers. As Lee deals with the aftermath of this brother’s death and taking care of his nephew, the audience feels as if they are walking alongside him through every event. This intimate immersion gives the movie high emotional impact.
The best execution of this intimate storytelling technique was how the movie producers incorporated the flashback scenes. They weaved it into present day scenes in such a way to replicate how memory works and make you feel like you are in Lee’s head. Similar to real-life, when you are sitting somewhere and an object or place can trigger your memory on something else, we see that with Lee. One extended in particular does a great job of this, where Lee’s memory is triggered on past events when he looks out the window to see the sea. We see the flashbacks and then see Lee’s face as he is recalling the events, and feel like we are right there in his head and emotions. A brilliant filming and producing tactic.
Aside from the writing and producing, which were very strong, the cinematography was beautiful. The shots of the houses, sea, and boating life gave a good sense of the town size and culture. Last but not least, Casey Affleck deserves high accolades for his performance. It’s not easy to take on a role that requires you to be emotionally detached, but Affleck did it convincingly. Lucas Hedges, who play’s Lee’s nephew Patrick, also did a great job showing what it’s like to be a teenager. One scene in particular touched me, which was when Patrick breaks down crying after an issue with the refrigerator. Before this point, we don’t see Patrick crying after his father’s passing. However, this scene accurately shows how grief works, where it can be built up and triggered by something small to come out.
While the movie’s theme was overall very serious, the audience gets an occasional laugh or two watching the nephew and uncle banter and awkwardly navigate their relationship.
Overall, I highly recommend watching this movie. Particularly, for those who enjoy watching character development stories and getting vested into a character’s thought process and world.