Next to Christmas, Thanksgiving is one of the busiest times of the year at the movies. This year was no different as several major films were released this week. Bad Santa 2 came out a few days ago and we found it to be largely terrible. Warren Beatty’s first film in 15 years, Rules Don’t Apply, came out this week as well. We argue that it has glimpses of intrigue, but it ultimately stumbles and is one of the true disappointments of the year. We think that Allied is solid and intriguing while being a beautifully realized World War II thriller. Disney’s latest animated feature, Moana, was released this week as well. We found it to be smartly written as it seamlessly shifts between surreal fantasy and pure slapstick all the while paying homage to Polynesian mythology.
A few other interesting things that may have flown beneath your radar were also released this week. Let’s talk about them.
Manchester by the Sea
As someone who greatly admired what writer-director Kenneth Lonergan achieved with You Can Count on Me and only liked about 50 percent of his admittedly tampered-with, long-delayed Margaret, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from his newest excursion, an exploration into the many ways we deal (or don’t deal) with loss and grief and digging back out of such experiences so that we can carry on with our lives. The way grief is portrayed in movies, usually the story is about how a character makes the journey—or even just the first step on said journey—to find a better place, and by the end of the film, the character has hope or some kind of redemption or forgiveness—whatever that person needs to exit their pit of despair. But in the real world for us mere mortals, things don’t work out nearly as cleanly, and Manchester by the Sea is a tough, thoughtful and perfect reminder of that.
There is something so perfect in the structure of this movie—which includes a series of beautifully placed and executed flashbacks—that it almost begs us not to reveal too much about the plot details, so I’ll attempt not to. When we meet Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck, making good on the promises he made as an actor in Gone Baby Gone and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford), he’s a quiet, competent janitor/handyman for a Boston apartment complex, who receives a call that forces him to head back to the old suburban neighborhood of Manchester by the Sea, where some of his family still resides. His older brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler, in his best film role to date), who has been suffering from a heart condition for many years, has finally succumbed, leaving his teen son Patrick (Lucas Hedges of Moonrise Kingdom) in the care of Lee, who wants no part of taking care of a kid, even his beloved nephew.
What follows is a magnificent unveiling and laying bare of Lee’s deepest thoughts and fears about being back in this town and being placed in the position where he is someone’s legal guardian (Patrick’s mother, Elise, played by Gretchen Mol, has been out of the picture for many years due to a substance abuse problem and general bad behavior). Lonergan backs things up a few years, giving us glimpses into often better times: Lee and Joe taking a much younger Patrick out on the family boat; Lee’s first indication that he had heart trouble; Lee and then-wife Randi (Michelle Williams) happy at home with their young children. The more we’re shown, the more we wonder what blew up Lee’s life and damaged him so completely that he has yet to recover or show any sign of wanting to. By making these small time jumps, Lonergan reminds us how linked the past and present will always be, and he offers up a portrait of a man who wants the best for his nephew, only Lee is convinced that his being as far away from the boy as possible is what’s best. That’s a hard realization for him and for the audience.
This is not Affleck’s first time pulling out the Boston accent, but unlike many recent films that seem to celebrate the sexist, racist and reckless machismo and non-stop drinking of working-class townies, Manchester by the Sea acts as a condemnation of the lifestyle when it shows the consequences of such behavior in its most brutal form. Adding to the overall sorrowful tone of the film is director of photography Jody Lee Lipes’ steely blue and grey atmosphere, matching the moods of many of the characters.
Not that the film is without humor. One of the most honest elements about Manchester is the way it admits that not everyone grieves the same. In the days leading up to his father’s death, nephew Patrick was close to sealing the deal with his girlfriend, and his raging hormones didn’t subside just because he has to attend a funeral. One of the first requests he makes of his Uncle Lee is if the girl can sleep over in his room, claiming his dad never had a problem with it. The kid is a perpetual horn-dog and delivers some much needed comic relief both in his attempts to bed the girlfriend and in attempting to communicate with his emotionally shut down uncle. He even attempts to set Lee up on a date of sorts with the girl’s mother (Heather Burns), hoping they’ll keep each other occupied in the living room while the clothes come off upstairs.
Some of the toughest moments in the film involve Randi getting in touch with Lee to make sure it’s okay that she and her new husband come to the funeral. While Lee manages to hold it together most of the time, an encounter near the end of the film is almost too difficult to watch. In a thousand other movies, that scene would have played out so that these ex-spouses make some sort of peace, but Lonergan has other ideas, and watching Affleck get so flustered and uncomfortable in the moment that he can’t even get words out is perhaps the finest piece of acting he has ever done.
Manchester by the Sea manages not only to capture a place and its people, but it also makes it clear that the two are undeniably linked. Some people break free and start anew, and others live and die right where they started, while others suffer no matter where they go. For those who think, these are not the messages we want movies to give us about life, Lonergan’s response might be, “But that’s the way life is.” The film’s only downside is that it reminds us how damn long it takes Lonergan to write and direct a movie. But if the results are this extraordinary, we’ll somehow find a way to fill the gaps. Welcome to one of the true masterpieces of 2016.
The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.
Daughters of the Dust
Just a quick note to alert all of the fact that writer-director Julie Dash’s exquisitely made 1991 feature debut Daughters of the Dust has been restored as is returning to the big screen this week. Set in 1902, the movie documents the final days of a thriving African-American community known as the Gullah, who lived on small islands off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia and celebrated their West African roots in a strong matriarchal culture. The woman pass down both traditions and stories of old to the younger generations.
When we enter their lives, a large number of families are planning a massive migration north to the mainland to live, leaving only a few behind. A massive picnic gathering is being planned, bringing together several generations, as well as folks who have already left the community, who return to pay tribute to their heritage. Dash seems to have built her film from the elements and dreams rather than traditional movie-making materials, and the result is consistently breathtaking and thought provoking, as an entirely new segment of American life and history is opened up and given room to expand and enter our minds. The impact of Daughters of the Dust, both as an indie film and as a work of art, is still felt today. For example, watch Beyonce’s Lemonade video album for undeniable proof of Dash’s influence.
The film glides from the supernatural to the faith based to the very real troubles of this world, and it all seems connected and dependent on each other to function within this magical place. This is an existence where the elders are respected, stories are considered a valuable commodity, and a connection to ancestors is the most sacred part of living. Daughters of the Dust is also one of the most visually arresting and beautiful films I’ve ever seen, and you shouldn’t miss the chance to see it on the big screen.
The newly restored, 25th anniversary version of Daughters of the Dust opens today for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.