When we last lived in Massachusetts, I recall visiting the very scenic seaside town of Manchester-by-the-Sea. That, it turns out, was no preparation for the movie of the same name we saw the other day. It takes place in the winter--the off-season--so no beaches, no Fourth-of-July parade, no light-hearted summertime fun.
It's dour, gray, gloomy--you can feel the cold. The performances by the leading players are excellent, especially Casey Affleck, who is not off-screen at all. Cinematic stalwarts like Michelle Williams all don the requisite Bay State accents to good effect. The story, which explores Affleck's facing the responsibility of serving as guardian for his late brother's teenaged son (well played by Lucas Hedges), is fine but the picture turns out to be slow without redeeming value.
The same ground seems to be covered again and again. Affleck's character has shut down emotionally and cannot relate to any of the others because of a major disaster for which he has some responsibility. The plot is believable in the way it proceeds to what turns out to me to be a very reasonable ending.
Without criticizing Affleck, I found myself unable to empathize with his character. In fact, he's behaved in what is so clearly an antisocial manner that I wondered why his brother had continued to rely on him to be the guardian, given that the brother's death, although anticipated, was not sudden.
So is this a good depiction of the working-class society of this kind of New England town, with its many warts on full display? Probably yes, but there's not much to show for all the sturm und drang after two-and-one-quarter hours of immersion. Everyone tends to behave predictably; there's some good use of both flashback and sudden flashes.
But does this picture have the kind of major theme or themes that you expect from what is being heralded as one of the year's best? It didn't seem to have any of that.