Nate Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation” snagged Sundance’ biggest headlines, winning both the Grand Jury Prize and the audience award and selling to Fox Searchlight for a record-shattering $17.5 million. But Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester by the Sea” dominated Indiewire’s Sundance critics poll, winning for best feature, director, Casey Affleck’s lead performance, screenplay and ensemble, and with Michelle Williams finishing second in the support actress category. They were commanding wins, too, with nearly double the votes of its nearest competitor in most categories: For feature, it got three times as many points; for screenplay, almost four.
Robert Greene’s “Kate Plays Christine” likewise trumped the best documentary field, with more than twice the points of the Grand Jury Prize winner, “Weiner.” Kate Lyn Sheil, who stars as an actress investigating the on-camera suicide of Sarasota, Fl. newswoman Christine Chubbuck, placed fifth in the lead performance category — well behind Rebecca Hall, who plays the same character in Antonio Campos’ feature “Christine,” but still noteworthy considering how rarely documentary performances are even acknowledged as such. (Greene was also awarded a special prize for screenwriting by Sundance’s documentary jury — another rarity.)
“The Birth of a Nation” took the poll’s prize for Best First Feature, and Parker placed in the top five in screenplay and lead performance, but either the critics in Indiewire’s poll were less impressed than those who tweeted ecstatic reviews out of the film’s world premiere or the heat of that particular screening had cooled off enough by Sunday night to prompt a quick reconsideration.
“Manchester by the Sea,” by contrast, is a movie that deepens in the mind, as it doubtless will upon repeat viewings. (Amazon Studios paid $10 million for streaming rights to the film, but no theatrical partner or release date has been announced.) The story of an aimless Boston maintenance man (Affleck) who returns home after the death of his brother (Kyle Chandler) and finds he’s been named as his nephew’s guardian is, in some ways, a remix of Lonergan’s “You Can Count on Me” and “Margaret,” less surprising than either but more accomplished, too. Like Anna Paquin’s “Margaret” character, Affleck’s Lee has been paralyzed by an awful combination of grief and culpability, although Lonergan doesn’t reveal the reason for Lee’s state until midway through the film. But where “Margaret” frames the subject through the lens of adolescent female narcissism, “Manchester” comes at it from the perspective of a working-class man for whom repression is the only means of survival. He’d sooner throw a punch than talk it out, and when he’s finally confronted with a person who wants to lend a sympathetic ear, you can almost see the fear seize his entire body. It’s as if understanding, let alone forgiveness, is more than he can bear.
Coming to the movies as a playwright, Lonergan is often appreciated as a writer first, but “Manchester” proves him (again) to be a great director, and not just of actors. Following through on the more radical aspects of “Margaret’s” unfinished longer cut, “Manchester” inserts constant but subtle reminders that the world does not stop to mourn, and that the characters whose lives we happen to be watching are only dim stars in an enormous constellation. As Lee’s fixing apartments in Quincy before the bad new breaks, conversations spill over from adjoining rooms, fleeting glimpses into lives that exist even though we’ll never know more about them. Lonergan himself makes a brief cameo as an obnoxious passer-by who imagines he knows more about Lee and his nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), than he does, and even he gets a stray cutaway of him leaving the scene: Assholes are people, too.
“Manchester” is devastating at times, but it’s also funnier than a movie about lingering grief has any right to be — and they’re real, deep laughs, too. Humor, even slapstick, keeps bubbling up from unexpected places, as when a bunch of Patrick’s friends come over the night of his father’s funeral and get into a thickly Boston-accented shouting match about “Star Trek.” As he and Lee settle into their awkward living arrangement, Patrick keeps up his relationships with two separate girlfriends who are unaware of each other’s existence. The world is part tragedy, part farce, and neither cares about respecting the other’s boundaries.
Frankly, $10 million seems like a lot to pay for “Manchester by the Sea,” even if the amount has less to do with a cold calculation of its financial worth and more to do with Amazon starting Sundance off with a big we’ve-arrived splash. Obscenely premature Oscar buzz or no, it’s not destined to be a hit, at least unless the world is a substantially better place than I think it is. Perhaps it’s fortunate to have been overshadowed by “The Birth of a Nation,” which will head into theaters bearing expectations as huge as its price tag. But “Manchester” is deceptively large, taking in far more of the world than its bare outlines might suggest, and deserves a robust theatrical life before it ends up as just more streaming content.