I’ve been thinking a lot this Oscar season about the function of music in film. In La La Land, as in the classic musicals it frequently pays tribute to, the songs and the score act as a fundamental extension of the characters. When the characters sing, they reveal things about themselves that they might not ordinarily say. But even in between the songs, practically every time Ryan Reynolds is onscreen, the score reflects his single-minded obsession with jazz and how it informs the way he views the world.
You probably won’t be surprised to learn that there are no song and dance numbers in Manchester By The Sea. In fact, for long stretches of the film there score is so low-key you’d barely notice it. But there are two key musical choices in the film that stuck with me, one that I felt worked well, one that didn’t. The former was a running gag about Patrick Chandler (Lucas Hedges) playing in a terrible garage band with one of his two girlfriends. The band scenes in the movie don’t drive the story forward in any noticeable way, but in addition to adding some comic relief to the movie, they reinforce how endearingly ridiculous teenagers can be. With much of the movie dealing with the fallout from the death of Patrick’s father, the band scenes add valuable texture, hinting at a life beyond the movie’s main narrative, and allowing us to see him as more than a one-dimensional object of pity.
Less successful, to my mind, is the use of sweeping classical music during a key flashback scene involving Casey Affleck’s character. In a film as intimate and character-driven as Manchester By The Sea, I tend to see the function of the score as a reflection of the emotional state of the character. It should be the closest approximation to the music he hears in his head at that moment. In this scene the string-drenched score felt intrusive, an atypically heavy-handed attempt at guiding the emotions of the viewer at a moment when dead silence might have worked better. At the risk of taking an overly-literal view, I never felt that Lesley Barber’s score really reflected the kind of music Affleck’s character would have listened to, and its prominence in this scene momentarily reminded me that I was watching a movie.
Perhaps the music in this scene jarred with me because it’s a rare example of the film overplaying its hand. Like director Kenneth Lonergan’s previous hit You Can Count On Me, Manchester By The Sea tells a small, human story in a way that largely avoids the trappings of dramatic cliche. The film has no shortage of tragedy, but unlike many of the major Oscar movies this year, it allows for the characters to be more than the sum of their personal tragedies. It’s either the funniest drama or the saddest comedy I’ve seen all year.
Much of this levity comes from the fractious but fundamentally loving relationship between the central characters. Affleck and Hedges display excellent chemistry throughout, with Hedges gaining many of the movie’s biggest laughs with his impressively authentic portrayal of a manipulative, hormonally driven teenager who nevertheless masks an enormous amount of pain behind a veneer of morose sarcasm.
As a brooding everyman more comfortable expressing his emotions through starting a bar fight than a conversation, Affleck is on familiar ground here, but Lonergan’s sensitive writing gives him the opportunity to turn in one of the most nuanced and fully realised performances of his career. An emotional conversation with his ex-wife (played by Michelle Williams) is all the more heartbreaking for how effectively Affleck underplays it, particularly against his co-star’s more heightened performance.
More of a ruminative character study than a traditional three-act narrative, the film does meander a little on the way to its relatively open-ended conclusion, but it’s in the smaller, baggier moments that Manchester By The Sea most effectively stakes its claim as one of the most complex and truthful movies of the season.