TORONTO – Themes of mourning and redemption lie at the heart of “Manchester by the Sea,” but the film’s stars say the delicate approach to heavy subject matter is how the story finds its true strength.
“Those ideas of forgiveness and grief … definitely seem like what the movie is about, but it never puts too fine a point on anything, which is why I think it can be so effective,” said Casey Affleck, during an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival where the movie screened in September.
“Why it moves so many people is because it just presents itself — and all of the things that happen and the characters in there — without telling you how to feel.”
Oscar winner Matt Damon serves as a producer on “Manchester by the Sea,” which is written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan.
The searing family drama centres on Lee (Affleck), a downtrodden loner working as a custodian in a Boston suburb. Lee returns to his sleepy seaside hometown following the death of his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler of Netflix series “Bloodline”) and is forced to care for his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges).
Lee’s return is fraught with a pain far more grave than losing his beloved older sibling, as he must revisit a difficult past he had hoped to keep buried when he left town.
“The last thing that he wants to do is be a parent to anybody,” Affleck said of his character. “It was a sense of obligation, and his life is only comprised of a bunch of obligations that make up his day. ‘You have got to go to work, you’ve got to do this thing, you’ve got to clean somebody’s toilet, and then I have to take care of this.’
“To think (of) it beyond that would be too upsetting for him because then he has to think about his own life and his past — and he just can’t do that,” he added. “Now, he’s put in charge of this kid, and he can’t bear it. But the kid is the thing that sort of keeps chipping away at that hardened exterior … and then cheerfully and innocently bringing him back to life.”
“Manchester by the Sea” is already proving its mettle as an awards season contender, earning a best feature nomination from the Independent Spirit Awards, as well as acting nods for Affleck and Hedges, and Lonergan for screenplay.
“Kenny’s dialogue, it’s never overt, and it’s really naturalistic,” said three-time Oscar nominee Michelle Williams, who portrays Lee’s estranged wife Randi. “It seems like the characters are really making up what they’re saying on the spot. It doesn’t feel pre-meditated, so it feels like it’s springing from their unconscious.
“I think it’s able to have an effect on people’s unconsciousness because it isn’t trying to be didactic, it doesn’t really have a message; and I think maybe that’s why it’s effective.”
The universal theme of returning home and the challenges and conflicts that can arise between loved ones also struck a chord with the actors.
“I have a friend who always used to say: ‘What’s actually more upsetting, the thought of nuclear war or your own broken heart?'” said Williams.
“A conceptual worldwide catastrophe just isn’t going to actually measure up at the end of the day to what’s going on between you and another person.”
“Manchester by the Sea” opens on Friday in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, on Dec. 9 in Halifax, Ottawa, Winnipeg, Calgary, Edmonton and Victoria, and throughout the winter in other cities.
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Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version stated Michelle Williams is a three-time Oscar winner, rather than a three-time Oscar nominee