UK Release date: January 13th 2017
Starring: Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, Lucas Hedges
Directed by: Kenneth Lonergan
Running time: 137 mins
It’s always a sure sign of a fine movie when a character says exactly the same line twice, but with completely different meaning. That’s what happens in the fine, downbeat drama when young Patrick (Lucas Hedges), who has just lost his dad (Kyle Chandler) to a heart attack, asks his uncle Lee (Casey Affleck) to give him a lift to band practice. The first time it’s gentle, playful, a sweet, lonely boy asking his uncle, struggling to cope himself, for a simple favour. The second time it is harsh, angry, the boy is fed up with being passed around like an unwanted toy.
The remarkable thing about this film is the number of times it sets itself up for a clichéd resolution, and never follows it. Affleck’s Lee is a man struggling through life, an underpaid janitor with no friends and a crappy one-room apartment. When he discovers that his brother has died and he is the named person to care for his nephew Patrick, he does it, but reluctantly.
But surely the two men will bond and discover mutual respect, right? And all those women who keep eyeing Affleck in bars, one of them will save him? Or will it be the mother of Patrick’s girlfriend, a well-meaning, handsome woman?
Well, no, actually, because this has more of the feel of a Richard Yates short story, not a Hollywood ending. People, however hard they try to do the right thing and help each other, are flawed, and life keeps getting in the way. Patrick is an incredibly likeable young man, who even makes up with the boy he punches on the ice hockey pitch, but he struggles to cope with suddenly having no dad, and a mother who claims she has beaten her alcoholism. Of course he does, he’s 16, he really just wants to play sport, do gigs with his band and make out with his two very sweet girlfriends.
Affleck’s character is initially problematic – why is he so determined to be miserable? Faced with a tenant who is a little tricky he swears at her, and simply can’t cope with another, pretty tenant who makes it clear she likes him. He punches everyone who comes near him in a bar and interrupts his drinking, and when told he has to look after his teenage nephew tells the boy he simply has no clue what to do.
In a series of flashbacks though we learn some details, including about his ex-wife (Michelle Williams), and see him as a very different man – drunk certainly, but happy, and hardworking. Something, clearly, has gone wrong, and slowly we see what it is. No spoilers, but put it this way, he has certainly earned his misery.
This is a film as bleak as the snowy landscape in which it is set. Just when you think it can’t get much worse there is a scene with Patrick visiting his nervous wreck of a mother, who has a new partner, a ferocious Christian, played with impressive creepiness by Matthew Broderick. It’s skin-crawling stuff. However it does have some hope, and actually, such is the skill of the director, plenty of humour, mainly through the Patrick character. He is charming, funny, spiky and somewhat confused – but then, he is a teenager, and his forced relationship Lee is very real.
Overall verdict: There is a lot of Oscar buzz about this downbeat story and deservedly so, it’s a template for a masterclass in acting, which Affleck and Williams nail perfectly. Just don’t go expecting a Hollywood ending.
Reviewer: Mike Martin