There is a moment experienced by all human beings many times in their lives like no other.
It comes after making a mistake, losing something or simply doing something that was not intended – that moment of begging or bargaining for time to spin back so you could avoid whatever the misfortune was – commonly known as the ‘what if?’.
Plenty of films are based around that very moment/question with varying degrees of subtlety.
But that moment, and how you subsequently deal with it, is crucial to the success of Manchester by the Sea, a frontrunner for several awards this year.
Nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, it follows the life of Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), a man so tormented by a tragedy in his past that he left his family and home town (the titular Manchester, Massachusetts) and lives a lonely existence in one room, working as a janitor and drinking by himself each night.
The plot kicks in when his brother Joe succumbs to heart disease, leaving angsty teen son Patrick in Uncle Lee’s care, forcing a return to a place where everyone knows his name for the wrong reasons.
Through excellent use of flashback to happier times, Lee is shown to be a man who has revisited that moment so many times in his head that it has completely destroyed the once cheerful and loving man he was.
Withdrawn to the point where he would rather sit silently in a bar full of people than even attempt small talk, his behaviour is a constant source of frustration for his hormonal and grieving nephew.
Make no mistake, this is not a film about reconnecting, although there is an element of it.
There are some things you cannot come back from, and Affleck absolutely nails the emotional range of a man who is well aware of that.
I can’t praise his performance enough – this is a role that could so easily have turned into a sullen, mopey, self-pitying mess in the hands of another.
But Affleck (who is a shoe-in for Best Actor) never has to overreach. His expressions tell the story of a man who has not given up on living, but who deserves nothing more than the minimum of getting by.
There is still some fire inside of him, but it’s burnt up most of the joy.
This is perhaps why we have to wait so long to see a glimmer of the old Lee in his exchanges with his ex-wife (played by the perennially brilliant Michelle Williams) and a long-overdue conversation between them forms the emotional crux of the film.
Lucas Hedges also enjoys a terrific break-out role as Patrick; he certainly has the talent to carve out a strong career based on this showing – a scene involving a freezer is particularly moving.
A subplot involving his efforts to finally have sex with one of his two girlfriends was a little jarring at first, but thinking about it I’m all for realism and for a teenager who has just lost his father (and is almost out of touch with his alcoholic mother), I can absolutely see Patrick trying to fill that void with sex.
Credit also has to be given to Kyle Chandler (who has proved in Friday Night Lights and Super 8 to be the ultimate father figure) despite the fact he barely appears as deceased brother Joe.
But it is clear from both the present day scenes and the flashbacks that his character was the supportive influence Lee needed just to keep going – even if it was through something as mundane as forcing him to buy furniture for his new home.
Make no mistake, as good as this film is, it is hard going at times, and director Kenneth Lonergan does not hold back on the tragedy.
I was not very familiar with his work prior to this, and it turns out he wrote the screenplays for Analyse This/That and The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle.
As out of place as that seems, it actually does the film a favour as the fairly frequent moments of dark comedy stop it from entering a depressive tailspin.
As an interesting aside, this is an Amazon Studios-supported production, which just goes to show what an impact online streaming services such as Amazon and Netflix are having on the film industry at the moment.
Even if we don’t get to find out the numbers, with the critical success of recent television series, I doubt it will be long before streaming services are rivalling the traditional Hollywood behemoths at the Oscars year-in, year-out.
I don’t envy Oscar voters having to pick Best Picture this year as I am having such a hard time separating this and La La Land as my film of the awards season.
But given the depth of this story over the slightly, and I mean slightly, more throwaway nature of La La Land, I think Manchester by the Sea would be my choice.