Manchester by the Sea and its star, Casey Affleck, have been winning awards left and right, of late. I’ve recently been struck by how many films use a very specific place name as a title. An upcoming Jim Jarmusch indie (starring Adam Driver as a bus driver who’s a secret poet) is called Paterson, after both the last name of the leading character and the town he lives in: the unlovely Paterson, New Jersey. Last year it was Brooklyn, a period piece about an Irish lass who comes of age (in more ways than one) when she travels across the sea from her homeland to a place of adventure and opportunity. In 2013 we had Nebraska, which set the story of an elderly man against the backdrop of a low-key state to which I’d previously given absolutely no thought.
Big cities, too, inspire movies that try to encapsulate the spirit of a particular geographical and social environment. Take the Oscar-winning Chicago: about crime, spunk, and all that jazz. Or Manhattan, Woody Allen’s valentine to the romance that’s possible in a city that never sleeps. I hope that Philadelphia, a drama focusing on the firing of an AIDS-stricken attorney, doesn’t reflect the core values of the City of Brotherly Love. But La La Land sounds like it grasps the essence of my beautifully crazy hometown.
The Coen brothers, who enjoy capturing the mood of a locale in all their films, turned to their native soil when making Fargo. They hail from Minneapolis, where much of their tale unfolds, but -- within the context of a grim and bloody crime story -- Fargo, North Dakota looms as a mysterious destination marked by shifting allegiances, loose morality, and lots and lots of snow.
Manchester by the Sea is set on Cape Ann, Massachusetts, in a picturesque seaside community that’s been lovingly photographed to bring out its beauty in all seasons. In this film, the town is very much a central character. We pick up on the local sense of pride and independence, as well as the feeling that the 5000 fulltime residents are very much a part of one another’s lives. They may be working-class folk, but they’re not poor, either in money or in spirit.
The story by writer-director Kenneth Lonergan focuses on one Manchester native, Lee Chandler, who has left town to work as a janitor in Boston. At the start of the film, he’s summoned back home by the news of his brother’s death, followed by the discovery that he’s been appointed the guardian of his brother’s son. Lee means well, but his stay in Manchester is haunted by his recollection (and the town’s) of the tragedy that drove him away in the first place. Casey Affleck’s strong performance conveys the grief and the guilt of a taciturn man who can’t get past the event that upended his life years before. The heart of the film is his interaction with his sixteen-year-old nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), who has his own way of coping with sudden loss. Much of their interchange is surprisingly comic – Lucas is deftly juggling intimate relations with two high-school girlfriends – but the scene in which Lucas melts down while wrestling with a load of frozen food in his home freezer is as powerful as they come.
Clearly, Lonergan (who’d made the well-regarded You Can Count on Me) knows about grief, and about how a community can try to rescue a member who’s in need of help. The only false note? The sudden appearance of Matthew Broderick in an unlikely small part generated chuckles from the knowing audience.