Film

Sundance 2016: 'Manchester by the Sea' + 'Certain Women'

Kyle Chandler as Joe, Casey Affleck as Lee in Manchester by the Sea Credit: Claire Folger

Two exceptional films at this year’s Sundance Festival resist the typical character arc, and instead follow individuals who either have no interest in changing or are powerless to do so.


Manchester by the Sea

Director: Kenneth Lonergan
Cast: Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, Gretchen Moll, Lucas Hedges, Tate Donovan, Heather Burns, Kara Hayward
Rated: NR
Studio: Amazon Studios
Year: 2016
US date: 2016-01-23 (Sundance Film Festival)
Website

Certain Women

Director: Kelly Reichardt
Cast: Laura Dern, Jared Harris, James Le Gros, Michelle Williams, Kristen Stewart, Rene Auberjonois, Lily Gladstone
Rated: NR
Studio: Sony Pictures
Year: 2016
US date: 2016-01-24 (Sundance Film Festival)
Website

Western storytelling has long relied on the character arc, following someone's journey from one place or set of assumptions to a change, a revelation. These two exceptional films at this year’s Sundance Festival follow characters who either have no interest in changing or are powerless to do so.

Manchester by the Sea, Kenneth Lonergan’s much anticipated follow-up to the sublime Margaret, begins with a familiar circumstance. Lee (Casey Affleck), a young man with a reckless disposition and a crushing tragedy in his past, returns to his hometown on Massachusetts' North Shore to take care of Patrick (Lucas Hedges), his 16-year-old nephew. Patrick has just lost his father, but finds himself called on to take care of his uncle.

The film offers a series of present scenes intermingled with flashbacks that slowly reveal the source of Lee’s pain, and the underpinnings of his relationships with Patrick as well as his ex-wife, Randi (Michelle Williams), who now has a new husband and a baby on the way. The narrative energy is premised not on plot, as not much happens, but on the characters' relationships, their flashes of joy and suffering accumulating in astonishing ways.

It doesn’t hurt that the reliably affecting Affleck plays Lee like a prowling animal trapped in a small room. It’s clear that he’s longing for something, perhaps absolution, but it's also clear that he won't soon be finding it. The film’s emotional climax, when Lee finally articulates what has been plain to us from the beginning, is searing. At last he can see what we've seen all along.

Certain Women (2016)

Another sort of resistance to typical character trajectories comes in Kelly Reichardt's Certain Women. Like her previous movies -- River of Grass, Meek’s Cutoff, Wendy and Lucy, and Night Moves -- the new one uses a slow pace to conjure a contemplative, moody atmosphere.

That atmosphere results as well from Reichardt's source material, as she adapts three stories from Montana-based writer Maile Meloy. The pieces fit together in a loose triptych with only a few threads of mostly geographic connective tissue between them. Montana, the film shows, is full of wide open, potentially lonely spaces.

In the first story, a lawyer named Laura (Laura Dern) is having an affair with a married man, Ryan (James Le Gros), as she's also contending with a difficult client, Fuller (Jared Harris). Angry and convinced he has a case of negligence against his former employer despite little evidence, Fuller attempts to take matters in his own hands, leading to a hostage situation.

In the second story, Gina (Michelle Williams) pushes her husband (Ryan, the one having the affair with Laura) to acquire a vast pile of sandstone from the front yard of an elderly man (Rene Auberjonois) whom they both vaguely know. We become aware that her desire for the material -- to be used in building a new home, a sign of some security -- overwhelms her empathy for the old man or anyone else.

The third story follows Jamie (Lily Gladstone), who works alone in a horse stable. Her days are long and the place is empty of other people, as the film shows in beautifully composed shots.

Bored, Jamie heads out one night and begins randomly following a few cars. One leads her to a classroom, as she ends up sitting in on an Adult Ed class taught by Beth (Kristen Stewart), a lawyer who lives in Livingston, Montana, some four hours away. The two sort of hit it off, but their investments in the relationship are different, a point plain to us even if it takes Jamie some time to realize it. When Beth suddenly stops teaching the class, the fretting Jamie drives the distance to Livingston in hopes of reconnecting with her.

Each story in Certain Women maintains a slow pace, while leading viewers to understand complex emotional depths, as these very different women grapple with loneliness and imminent loss, their hopes for changes they can't quite identify. By the end, as in Manchester by the Sea, a lack of action suggests a lack of transformation.

If Manchester by the Sea and Certain Women don't provide typical characters, they do encourage viewers to see their own expectations, as well as the profound effects of fear, inertia, and alienation. Not everyone gets to experience catharsis, both films suggest, but that doesn’t make these individual stories any less compelling or necessary.

Music


Books


Film


Recent
Books

How the Template for Modern Combat Journalism Developed

The superbly researched Journalism and the Russo-Japanese War tells readers how Japan pioneered modern techniques of propaganda and censorship in the Russo-Japanese War.

Film

From Horrifying Comedy to Darkly Funny Horror: Bob Clark Films

What if I told you that the director of one of the most heartwarming and beloved Christmas movies of all time is the same director as probably the most terrifying and disturbing yuletide horror films of all time?

Music

The 50 Best Songs of 2007

Journey back 13 years to a stellar year for Rihanna, M.I.A., Arcade Fire, and Kanye West. From hip-hop to indie rock and everywhere in between, PopMatters picks the best 50 songs of 2007.

Music

'Modern' Is the Pinnacle of Post-Comeback Buzzcocks' Records

Presented as part of the new Buzzcocks' box-set, Sell You Everything, Modern showed a band that wasn't interested in just repeating itself or playing to nostalgia.

Music

​Nearly 50 and Nearly Unplugged: 'ChangesNowBowie' Is a Glimpse Into a Brilliant Mind

Nine tracks, recorded by the BBC in 1996 show David Bowie in a relaxed and playful mood. ChangesNowBowie is a glimpse into a brilliant mind.

Music

Reaching for the Sky: An Interview with Singer-Songwriter Bruce Sudano

How did Bruce Sudano become a superhero? PopMatters has the answer as Sudano celebrates the release of Spirals and reflects on his career from Brooklyn Dreams to Broadway.

Music

Inventions Conjure Mystery and Hope with the Intensely Creative 'Continuous Portrait'

Instrumental duo Matthew Robert Cooper (Eluvium) and Mark T. Smith (Explosions in the Sky) release their first album in five years as Inventions. Continuous Portrait is both sonically thrilling and oddly soothing.

Music

Esperanza Spalding and Fred Hersch Are 'Live at the Village Vanguard' to Raise Money for Musicians

Esperanza Spalding and Fred Hersch release a live recording from a 2018 show to raise money for a good cause: other jazz musicians.

Music

Lady Gaga's 'Chromatica' Hides Its True Intentions Behind Dancefloor Exuberance

Lady Gaga's Chromatica is the most lively and consistent record she's made since Born This Way, embracing everything great about her dance-pop early days and giving it a fresh twist.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Street Art As Sprayed Solidarity: Global Corona Graffiti

COVID-19-related street art functions as a vehicle for political critique and social engagement. It offers a form of global solidarity in a time of crisis.

Music

Gretchen Peters Honors Mickey Newbury With "The Sailor" and New Album (premiere + interview)

Gretchen Peters' latest album, The Night You Wrote That Song: The Songs of Mickey Newbury, celebrates one of American songwriting's most underappreciated artists. Hear Peters' new single "The Sailor" as she talks about her latest project.

Music

Okkyung Lee Goes From Classical to Noise on the Stellar 'Yeo-Neun'

Cellist Okkyung Lee walks a fine line between classical and noise on the splendid, minimalist excursion Yeo-Neun.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.