Manchester by the Sea ★★★★★

"I can't beat it."

It's an icy blue surface. A steady, practiced formalism told through sweeping shots and steady compositions. It's a script devoid of sap and convention, too smart and too respectful to go for the cheap emotions. And, at the end of the day, it's a story about a man who hates himself, a boy who hates the world, a woman who needs to love, and a writer who is in love with all of these people.

That's right, I said people. To call these individuals characters is to do them a disservice. It's very rare that I see such attention to detail paid to idiosyncrasies and quirks of these people. Their mannerisms, how they talk, how they walk, how they interact, tell us worlds.

Empathy is the key word here. Kenneth Lonergan is a writer who refuses to look down upon, or even exalt, any of his characters. He looks them straight in the eye and embraces everything about them, including their faults. I'm sure, down the line, teachers will discuss Manchester by the Sea in terms of its structure or its pacing as a reason why it works. But make no mistake, the real reason it does work is because of empathy.

Watching Lee Chandler go about his life, seeing the position he's put himself in, knowing that he can't ever really change, it felt like a constant pressure was weighing down on me, clutching at my face and my throat. I just wanted to grab the guy by the shoulders and scream into his face, "Snap out of it! You have people in your life that love your stupid ass to death! Stop doing this to yourself!". But even if I did, I doubt it would do much. Lee can't recover from his loss, at least, not in the "wipe the slate clean" way that most Hollywood characters do. This moment of his life is going to sit with him forever, constantly gnawing at his stomach. He can either let it eat him alive or he can find a way to co opt it into his life. I'm glad he chose the latter.

Not too many people in Patrick's life seem to get him. Yes his father died. Of course he's not going to cry about it. Of course he's not going to open up to everyone around him like a book waiting to be read. Why should he? What does he owe the world? No, better to be quiet and suffer in silence. I'm not saying that this is how he should act, but I do think that this is why he acts this way. I, like Patrick, tend to be an insufferable smartass when going through a tough time. It's our way of flipping off the world, telling it "you don't fucking own me, asshole". Maybe it's immature, but at times, maturity can seem like a lost cause.

Lee and Patrick may not get along, but they understand each other. When they speak alone, it's almost like they're talking in code. The kind of veiled shorthand that people who've gone through similar experiences speak in.

Oh, I almost forgot about Brandi. She doesn't show up much, but when she does, I feel like I'm able to understand her so well. She's the kind of person who needs to attach herself to others. Not in a vampiric way, she just has to love people. That's just the way she's wired. She says that she's said some horrible things to Lee. While we don't exactly know what went down in their relationship, we can kind of connect the dots on our own. One things for certain, the more Brandi was around Lee, the more she was hurting herself. I think that's why she decided to cut ties and find someone else. It's hard to love someone who refuses to be loved.

There's a stillness in Manchester by the Sea, like the ice that's packed against the side of the titular town's road. It almost feels like the movie's aware of these character's fragility, and if it makes any sudden movements, they might shatter to pieces. Lonergan abandons the tropes of independent family dramas, instead opting for a stripped down, classicist approach. It calls to mind films like On the Waterfront and Ordinary People. Like those films, Manchester by the Sea will stand the test of time as a story about frail, unstable, stupid, beautiful humans. I'm so glad movies like these exist, I think they serve to connect us better than most blockbuster extravaganzas.

This might be one of my more messy and unstructured reviews, which is ironic considering the film I'm reviewing flows like music. But it's kind of difficult to form cogent thoughts after seeing something this... real. I feel like my mind is still kind of swimming.

Empathy. Empathy is why it works.

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