When done right, no film genre can hit home for me quite as intensely as the family drama. I'm talking about the kinds of movies that, particularly in the late-1970s, into the 1980s, used to dominate the Oscars (often to the chagrin of those preferring something more visually compelling), not because they were sprawling epics or terribly "important" films but because the acting, writing and storytelling were so spot-on and reminded us vividly of our own family situations. I think of three Best Picture winners in particular - Kramer vs. Kramer, Terms of Endearment and, one of my all-time favorite films, Ordinary People.
In 2000, writer/director Kenneth Lonergan delivered a motion picture nearly on-par with those - You Can Count on Me, which gave Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo opportunities to turn in career-best work. Longeran's latest film, Manchester By the Sea, is even better than his 2000 effort.
In the film, Casey Affleck, in one of the year's very best performances, portrays Lee Chandler, an emotionally distant but easily agitated man who one winter day receives the worst of news - his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has died from heart failure. Lee, who years ago left his hometown of Manchester, Massachusetts following another truly tragic incident, must return to that Cape Ann town to get his late brother's affairs in order. While going over Joe's will, Lee is stunned to discover that he has been named guardian to his teenage nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Hardly prepared to take on those duties, and of course grappling with the death of his beloved brother, Lee also finds himself haunted by his Manchester past, unable to escape memories involving his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams), who still lives in the town.
Lonergan may have a hit-or-miss record as a screenwriter - among his credits are the middling Gangs of New York and flat-out dreadful The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle - but, when attached to the right project, particularly when he's directing to boot, he is a true master at crafting rich, real and engrossing characters and dialogue. Not a false note is struck here.
The acting, with the exception of a distracting Matthew Broderick cameo late in the picture, is first-rate all-around. Affleck dominates the film but Hedges is so impressive too - he reminded me a ton of both Timothy Hutton in Ordinary People and Michael O'Keefe in The Great Santini. Those two young men garnered Oscar nods (with Hutton winning) and I sure do hope Hedges can do the same. Williams and Chandler are fantastic too, albeit in far more limited roles, and there are many other great, small performances to be found throughout the film.
If I have a quibble with the film, beyond Broderick, it's a rather minor one - the picture's score, composed by Lesley Barber, is at times a nice one, complimenting scenes. There are key moments, however, when the music is curiously bombastic - in one critical scene in particular, it sounds like something straight out of The Phantom of the Opera. It's pretty bizarre but not bad enough for me to not give the film an...