Kenneth Lonergan: Manchester by the Sea

Francisco Fontes reviews Manchester by the Sea, from writer/director Kenneth Lonergan, at the New York Film Festival. It opens in wide release this week. 

The concept of one’s home, wherever it is, is always connected to an enormous amount of memories. Whether good or bad, it is hard to run away from what it represents, and how significant it is to us as human beings, as they symbolize the start of our lives, and the stones we inevitably need to step over to get where we are. In Kenneth Lonergan’s new film, Manchester, MA is the home of the Chandler family, and it holds such memories in every corner. Within the film, such memories are interwoven with the story we are following, giving us pieces of the puzzle little by little – keeping us guessing. Within the character’s lives, the past is close behind, making some memories ever present.

Lee, living in the suburbs of Boston, purposefully moved away from the place he grew up – trying his best to run away from the troubles that held his mind prisoner. But his ordinary, lonely life as a janitor is disrupted by the sudden death of his brother, and he is brought back to Manchester in order to take care of his nephew – who is now alone. Unfortunately for Lee, his return home is flooded with the memories that haunt him – and he is forced to deal with them in order to keep moving forward.

While very precise, and meticulously well made, Lonergan’s film fails to bring something new, delivering a melodrama that – though ever present around award season – feels commonplace. Good performances from its main cast, and a strong direction holds the project together, but its script fails to keep me interested in what it tries to present. While the characters are relatable, and their sorrow understandable, it is not enough to make this film as strong as it could have been. By the end of it, an unwanted feeling of déjà vu is all I am left with – and much like the characters here, once you have a memory in place, they just keep on showing up.

Every year, around any film festival, you can hear the whispers of excitement that surround a specific title. Praises come from all sides, and it’s hard to keep expectations low when a situation like that is created. This year, such whispers were directed at Manchester by the Sea, and with every day that passed, news of its sheer force and quality prevailed over most other titles. It is a shame therefore that I could not count myself as one of those who fell under its spell.

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