A moving character study in unresolved grief, Manchester by the Sea is not easy to watch but is a powerful example of a particular emotional catharsis unique to cinema. Kenneth Lonergan has only directed three films in 20 years, though I immediately loved his 2000 debut, the understated sibling drama You Can Count on Me. As that film demonstrated, his skill as a writer and as a director is drawing the audience into a space where we can understand and empathise with people making bad decisions and hurting others whilst trying their best. This occurs through both actions and dialogue, Lonergan’s writing reflecting people’s insular thought process, only realising the impact of their choice of words after they collide with other people. The stellar cast are uniformly excellent, though the script’s focus on Lee and his nephew does a slight disservice to the female characters. Nevertheless, as raw and emotional human drama, Manchester by the Sea is heartbreaking and beautiful.
“A lot of the time we feel that our life’s the worst, but I think that if you looked in anybody else’s closet, you wouldn’t trade your shit for their shit.”
Jonah Hill’s directorial debut is a nostalgia-soaked homage to the Los Angeles streets of his youth, following 13-year-old Stevie as he balances a questionable home life and a newfound friendship with a crew of skaters. Youthful aimlessness captured through grainy, low-fi production (shot on 16mm film) recalls Kids as well as early Richard Linklater. Befitting many of his acting roles, Hill demonstrates a well-attuned instinct for the awkwardness of male bonding, and the poor adolescent advice that accompanies it (“don’t thank people — they’re gonna think you’re gay,” Stevie is initially warned before the crew’s leader disabuses him of the notion). The unvarnished presentation of the reality of risk-taking and adult behaviour amongst children rarely feels forced, though its recurring theme of subconscious self-harm is only addressed at the end. Setting the film over two decades in the past also reduces its relevance to today’s teenagers. Mid90s may not be a stellar debut, but it demonstrates that Hill has skill behind the camera that indicates a bright future.
“Avoid trauma reminders? My whole work requires and is motivated by trauma reminders.”
The autobiographical nature of Honey Boy is evident even if one didn’t know Shia LaBeouf wrote the script. Noah Jupe is suitably captivating as a twelve-year-old actor in the questionable care of his recovering alcoholic father, a failed entertainer. The highlight, however, is LaBeouf on excellent form effectively playing his own father consumed by seething resentment at everyone. The film suggests an intention to forgive his father’s flaws but the portrayal is uncompromising and honest, aided by the lo-fi presentation of this independently funded film. However, intercutting the story with an older Otis in court-mandated alcohol rehab, resisting therapists’ attempts to explore his childhood, does not work. LaBeouf seems to be justifying his own erratic behaviour but — without introspection by the older Otis (or indeed LaBeouf’s script) — there is nothing for the audience to learn from his experience. As the credits roll there is less a sense of catharsis than narcissism.
“I want you to be the very best version of yourself that you can be.”
An alternative coming-of-age film, the focus is Catholic high school girl Christine (who has adopted the name “Lady Bird”) and her turbulent relationship with her mother. This is an unusually well-realised mother/daughter relationship, in which they both know they love one another, yet their strong-willed personalities frequently grate. Saoirse Ronan deftly avoids portraying Lady Bird as quirky for its own sake, instead making it a believable element of her awkward teenage self-expression, whilst still anxious about the perception of her wealthier peers. Religion largely takes a back seat to the more human elements of the story, in what struck me as a female counterpoint to Richard Linklater’s films about male adolescence.
“My daughter Angela was murdered 7 months ago. It seems to me the police department is too busy torturing black folk to solve actual crimes.”
Based on the talent involved, I expected to like this but I had no idea just how much. Starting with a mother seeking justice for her murdered daughter by calling out the local police department, this is really a journey through multiple characters dealing with grief and exploring the effect of tragedy upon our relationships, emerging as anger, love and fear. Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell are stellar in portraying richly nuanced characters, and are accompanied by an excellent supporting cast. Many scenes are soaked with such powerful emotion, whilst avoiding sentimentality through use of raw drama and dark humour, that watching the film is a cathartic experience. Of particular note, it is rare and refreshing that we see a female character whose grief is expressed through violent, misplaced rage. Martin McDonagh proved his talent with In Bruges but has seriously upped his game.