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Original Screenplay – Why Manchester by the Sea Towers Over the Rest

I don’t know what’s going to happen when the Oscars are announced in terms of a La La Land sweep. If the tsunami is unstoppable, it might just take original screenplay with it. While Damien Chazelle’s imaginary insular fantasy world of music, dance and making your dreams come true surely is an impressive work of art, it goes nowhere near as deep as Manchester by the Sea. Maybe deep isn’t what people want right now. Maybe escapism is what they want. Maybe they want to be carried away to a different time and place where the healing Hollywood musical lives. And they might.

The only two scripts that deal with present day strife are Manchester by the Sea and Taylor Sheridan’s excellent Hell or High Water. The Lobster and La La Land exist a bit in the surreal, certainly The Lobster does. It’s funny because La La Land and The Lobster are both love stories that dwell in fantasy. In The Lobster that fantasy is twisted into the grotesque. Somehow love finds a way through it. La La Land idealizes romance in the way that only Hollywood can do. But both live in the imagination and as such aren’t required to drill into reality.

The fifth nominee for Original Screenplay is about nostalgia and appreciation for women who lived in the era of unapologetic feminism. 20th Century Women feels like a world away by now. A richly drawn female characters who helped shape the way Mike Mills was raised, it draws from reality a bit but it also lives in the haze of how we romanticize our memories. And how we romanticize people who still exist in memory.

Hell or High Water depicts a slice of rural American life on the eve of Trump’s election. The Bernie Sanders world of big banks sticking it to the little guy coupled with the red state fantasy of how good guys with guns keep bad guys away is upended somewhat when a good-guy-gone-bad with a machine gun chases them away. But there is no doubt that Hell or High Water cozies up to that idea of the abandoned American, here a white family specifically. Structurally, it’s a flawless screenplay and well deserving of its nomination.

But Manchester by the Sea does something none of the other four do quite as well. All are driven by conflict: Do I give up on my dream and live an ordinary life? How do I grow up to be a man with no father figure around? How can I save my farm when the bank is threatening to foreclose? What happens if I accidentally fall in love in a world devoid of it?  These are all common problems addressed by many films we’ve seen, albeit executed with imagination and wit. But Lonergan’s script asks the question “What if I can’t get over something terrible in my past?” That question is rarely asked, yet it’s something we all confront at one point or another in our lives. Nobody lives a perfect life. We all make mistakes. Even if others can forgive us, what if we can’t forgive ourselves?

Indeed, the person tasked with the job of this struggle is Lee Chandler, personified by the fine actor Casey Affleck on whose face the battle rages. When his brother dies he is asked to step up and fill his shoes, to become a father figure to his nephew who clearly needs a dad. But the responsibility of even that forces him to think one step ahead to “what if.” What if something happens to the kid because of him?

Lonergan had to solve the problem of creating a past tragedy so terrible that Lee could never forgive himself. It would have to be something we the audience could forgive him for, but something so bad it would either drive him to suicide or it would torture him for the rest of his life.

Lonergan fleshes out the story to include the nephew’s world as he comes of age, falls in love, tries to map out a future for himself and school and employment. Affleck’s Lee spends time with a kid who was raised by his now dead brother. In him, the success of the brother as a father is evident. Lee’s children are all dead but in his nephew he glimpses what might have been.

Lonergan’s script is so intricately written, with not a minute that hasn’t been thought through, and yet the entire time the film never feels deliberate or programmed. It never feels like the plot is dragging the characters along to serve its necessary structure. The plot is driven by the circumstances and how the characters react to those circumstances.

I don’t think original screenplay is any contest and yet we know that Oscar voters often vote with their hearts and don’t really stop to think much about anything else along the way. That’s certainly understandable and how sweeps are born. Kenneth Lonergan has written You Can Count on Me, Margaret, and Manchester by the Sea,  Each of these is intricately, brilliantly written with an emphasis on characters in seemingly ordinary but tumultuous circumstances who slowly reveal who they are. He is fascinated by broken, imperfect people struggling to hold their precarious worlds together.

Manchester by the Sea is not necessarily driven by style but rather by truth. It does the rare thing in abandoning pretense and avoids giving the audience the one thing they need to confirm the illusion that everything is right with the world, that people are always saved, and endings are always happy. None of the endings in any of the five nominated screenplays, not even La La Land, confirm that. But the only one that we struggle with is Manchester by the Sea because we want something we can’t have. We want someone to be different from who he is. That frustration, that knot in the story is what elevates Manchester by the Sea from a family drama steeped in humor and sadness to something closer to a masterpiece.

Choosing Best Original Screenplay will be one of the tougher calls on Oscar night. These are five intelligent, unique and compelling stories. Only one of the five has stayed with me for months and that’s Lonergan’s story of parenthood gone wrong. It is my worst nightmare and I’m certain I will never get over it.

Lonergan has the buzz but he will be competing with Barry Jenkins at the BAFTA and the WGA for original screenplay. Thus, I suspect it’s possible that Moonlight will win, leaving an open ended mystery come Oscar night.