This Friday sees the theatrical release of writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s acclaimed drama Manchester by the Sea (http://manchesterbytheseathemovie.com/) which had its world premiere at Sundance and its international premiere at the Toronto film festival. It’s only his third feature in 16 years and definitely worth the wait. This is grownup complex human-scale moviemaking of the highest order — an American cinema truly worth celebrating.
At the centre is the taciturn character of Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), a loner and lost soul who has withdrawn from a hurtful world. He rents a bleak basement apartment in Boston, working as a handyman and janitor. His minimal social life is limited to having a few beers at the local bar where he is more likely to pick a fight than to make friends. Lee has a huge chip on his shoulder or is carrying a burden of private tragedy; maybe both. The layers of his past life are unfolded gradually through periodic flashbacks, revealing the source of his estrangement from his wife Randi (Michelle Williams) and family that has hardened into a defensive solitude.
But life has a way of cracking open our defences. That’s what happens when Lee’s older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler), who had been diagnosed with a congenital heart condition, dies suddenly of a heart attack and thrusts an unwanted responsibility on him. Joe’s marriage has also broken up, with ex-wife Elise (Gretchen Mol) in no condition to be a guardian to their 16-year-old son Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Instead, Joe’s will expressly appoints Lee to be Patrick’s legal guardian.
The funeral and aftermath force Lee to return to the hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea that he had abandoned, to deal with the issues of familial crisis and obligation that he has tried so hard to leave behind. Lucas is a handful who rules out any move to Boston. He’s a star hockey player. He plays in a rock band. He juggles several girlfriends, Sandy and Silvie (Kara Hayward and Anna Baryshnikov). Reacting aggressively to parental loss, there’s no way he’s going to make anything easy for uncle Lee. But, in struggling to reach out to this boy on the threshold of manhood, Lee starts a painful process of reconnection. This was a place of much happier times — of memories of sailing with Joe and young Patrick in Manchester harbour; of Lee as a loving husband and father of three children. There’s no simple formula for recovering from loss or picking up the pieces of relationships, and this genuinely affecting story, with its ear for dialogue, nuances and subtle details, indulges none.
The movie is an understated masterpiece of moods and the rhythms of ordinary people coping with life’s sometimes cruel challenges and healing possibilities. While the performances are all excellent (including Matthew Broderick in a small role), special praise is due Michelle Williams and, above all, Casey Affleck (Ben’s younger brother) as the troubled Lee. Oscar nominations would be richly deserved.
Also from Sundance, where it won the world cinema audience award, comes Colombian director Carlos del Castillo’s Between Sea and Land, a story of parental love inspired by an idea of principal actor Manolo Cruz who wrote the screenplay and is also a producer on the film. The Colombian setting is the swampy marsh of Santa Marta on a coastal inlet next to the Caribbean Sea where those too poor to own land have constructed a small makeshift village on stilts over the stagnant water, making do without electricity or any amenities. In one of the huts lies 28-year-old Alberto (Cruz), a severely disabled young man who is bedridden and cared for with constant devotion by his mother Rosa (Vicky Hernandez).
Alberto suffers from a chronic muscular neurological disorder that contorts his appearance, and he requires a breathing machine, hooked up to a generator, in order to survive. While Rosa barely ekes out a living from selling fish, Alberto makes sketches and dreams of going to the sea beyond, escaping the suffocating confines of his sickbed room with its oppressive heat and humidity. Adding to that longing are the visits he receives from childhood friend Giselle (Viviana Serna), now a beautiful young woman whose desire to help him stirs a faint hope of easing his condition. Her presence creates an underlying tension with the intensely protective Rosa and makes Alberto even more acutely aware of being imprisoned by his crippled body and dependent circumstances. He becomes more insistent about being taken to see the sea using a neighbour’s boat. Beyond a mother’s love and the machine keeping him alive, he’s desperately reaching for a horizon to set his spirit free.
To portray the disabled Alberto, Cruz lost a great deal of weight and lived among people with disabilities in order to effect a challenging transformation that is emotional as well as physical. Veteran actress Hernandez is equally convincing in the maternal role. Their work was recognized at Sundance with a special jury prize.
Apart from its coffee, Colombia is a country mainly known for bad news — of drug wars, human rights violations and displaced populations. (A recent peace deal to end the half-century-old civil war between the government and FARC guerillas was narrowly rejected by referendum, although President Juan Manuel Santos was subsequently awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.) Cruz explains his motivation to tell the story: “Because in a country like mine . . . violence has left a trail for generations and to the world we have this very bad image, which is why I felt the need for something more intimate, our other reality, that fact that there are good people, to rescue wonderful human beings who live here, people who are happy giving as much love as they can.”
Between Sea and Land will have a North American release in January.
Also scheduled for a January release is director and co-writer Bill Purple’s The Book of Love which was originally titled “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” when it premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in April.
New Orleans architect Henry (Jason Sudeikis) is in charge of a major waterfront restoration project when he receives the devastating news that his pregnant fun-loving wife Penny (Jessica Biel) has been killed in a car accident. Happiness and future hopes dashed, Henry retreats into a housebound world of grief until a chance encounter with a ragamuffin teenage street kid named Millie (Masie Williams) pries it open. Millie scavenges the streets with her dog “Ahab” looking through trash for items that can be used to build a makeshift raft. Speaking a poor-girl slang, she’s steeped in stories of the sea and claims to have the diary of a lost sailor found by her father. Her improbable goal is to cross the Atlantic to the Azores.
Henry and Millie form a bond that takes increasingly bizarre turns as he neglects his responsibilities and evades his mother-in-law (Mary Steenburgen). He stops shaving and becomes almost as feral as Millie while in his backyard the raft is assembled with the help of a couple of eccentric construction workers named Dumbass (Orlando Jones) and Pascal (Richard Robichaux). For Henry, believing again in life and love means shedding personal and corporate baggage, embracing Millie’s plan of escape through the Louisiana delta to the open sea.
Unfortunately the narrative elements are so strange as to stretch credulity and what could have been genuinely moving too often sinks into maudlin melodrama amplified by a swelling musical score (by Biel’s husband Justin Timberlake). Some seaside stories exert a powerful undertow. Others simply don’t hold water.