Manchester by the Sea and The Edge of Seventeen contain some of the best acting and several of the more moving, emotionally true moments you are likely to see in films this year.
Manchester’s Casey Affleck’s Lee and Edge of Seventeen’s Hailee Steinfeld’s Nadine each have suffered devastating losses, and their respective difficulties in coping make them arresting (if occasionally irritating and self-destructive) central figures.
At the outset of Manchester by the Sea, Casey Affleck’s Lee (a put-upon handyman for some apartment buildings) travels to his hometown of Manchester upon receiving word that his beloved older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler, seen in flashbacks in a warm performance) has died—and soon after discovers that Joe has made Lee guardian of his nephew Patrick (an excellent Lucas Hedges). Lee’s reluctance to take on this responsibility, coupled with his need to leave Manchester (thus uprooting an understandably rebellious Patrick), is but one element of writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s well-crafted, incisive screenplay
To reveal more would be unfair, but suffice it to say that the sullen, withdrawn, volatile Lee has his reasons to leave Manchester. Most of the movie consists of Lee trying to handle his new unwanted responsibilities and social interactions (Lee has no capacity for small talk) and his own haunting memories. Casey Affleck’s searing portrayal of a guilt-ridden lost soul at odds with himself and others produces many powerful moments, especially in his scenes with Hedges and Michelle Williams (as Lee’s ex-wife). Williams and Affleck’s final, beautifully acted scene together is but one example of why this film rings so true—the major characters, led by Affleck’s Award-worthy Lee, don’t undergo some magical catharsis—they are simply continuing to cope day-to-day, as best they can, and they still have far to go.
The Edge of Seventeen has been referred to as reminiscent of John Hughes’ films of the 1980s, but I think that’s damning it with faint praise, since first-time writer-director Kelly Fremon-Craig’s The Edge of Seventeen is superior to Hughes’ best work and certainly one of the better films of this year. After an intriguing opening in which depressed, alienated teenager Nadine Franklin (Hailee Steinfeld) announces to her history teacher (Woody Harrelson) that she plans to kill herself (in a really big way, she says), we find out what got her to this critical juncture. Flashbacks reveal a younger Nadine as lonely, bullied girl living in the shadow of her older brother Darian, who has everything Nadine lacks: self-confidence, good looks, and friends. While Nadine is close to her father, the mother clearly favors Darian. The seven-year-old Nadine finally finds one true friend in Krista (Haley-Sue Richardson)—but the friendship is sorely tested in high school when Krista and Darian find they share their own emotional kinship, which sends the already fragile Nadine into an emotional tailspin.
There is a lot that works about The Edge of Seventeen, especially in how it doesn’t shy away from the difficulties of teenage relationships, especially the feeling of abandonment, whether it comes from with friends, siblings or parents. Nor does it flinch from illustrating Nadine’s brittle tone, harsher edges and willful, self-sabotaging behavior, especially her role in turning the family into a war zone and her misguided desire to “hang out” with the rugged, good-looking student who works at Petco. In Haille Steinfeld’s very capable hands (her best work since True Grit), though contentment is within reach (too early to say happiness), especially in her budding relationship with her awkward but endearing classmate Erwin (Hayden Szeto), she cannot come to terms with what she views as huge betrayals and her self-imposed isolation (like Manchester’s Lee, she feels cut off from her peers). The scenario also skillfully introduces another lifeline with Nadine’s seemingly jaded but patient and likable teacher (a terrific Woody Harrelson) who tries—in his own way—to help Nadine through her difficulties. While there is the possibility that these characters might become “types,” all of emerge as recognizably human, as in Kyra Sedgwick as Nadine’s concerned mother, Blake Jenner’s seemingly self-possessed Darian, and Haley Lu Richardson’s Krista, who doesn’t want to be forced to choose between losing her boyfriend—or her best friend. There is enough angst to go around, but also a lot of welcome humor, courtesy of the results of Nadine’s unwillingness to follow social conventions. While The Edge of Seventeen (more than Manchester) does try to resolve many of the protagonist’s issues by the final credits, it does so with some understated but emotionally wrenching scenes, so that if the film has a hopeful finish, it feels honest and well-deserved.
Warren Beatty makes for an eccentric, paranoid, and even occasionally charming Howard Hughes in his new film Rules Don’t Apply, which Beatty directed and co-wrote (with Bo Goldman). However, it was a long time in the making and is probably not scoring a box office bullseye (there has been The Aviator in the interim, plus Beatty hasn’t made a film since the neglected Town and Country). Nevertheless, it is an entertaining film set in 1950s Hollywood (among other locales), filled with period flavor (lushly photographed by Caleb Deschanel, a fairly charming love story at its center (capably performed by Lily Collins and Alden Ehrenreich), and a number of notable turns by Alec Baldwin, Annette Bening (Mrs. Beatty), and especially Matthew Broderick as Hughes’ long-suffering, right-hand man. It’s well worth seeing if it’s still playing.
Finally, if you’re a classic movie buff (or know someone who is), it would be hard to find a better present than my new biography, Dan Duryea – Heel with a Heart, out now from University Press of Mississippi. It’s about the life of the underappreciated actor who was known for his villainous roles, (The Little Foxes, Criss Cross, The Woman in the Window) while simultaneously cultivating an off-screen image as a nice guy and family man—and why the public preferred to think of him as the “bad “guy.” Dan Duryea – Heel with a Heart can easily be purchased from Amazon or Barnes and Noble. You won’t be sorry you did.