At the 89th annual Academy Awards, Manchester By The Sea brought home the gold for Best Original Screenplay. While the film is successful on several levels, it did not deserve the Oscar for screenwriting.
This certainly is not a popular take. The film is loved by many. It is considered to be a great story and a tremendous cinematic achievement. Neither of those points are wrong, but you can have a great script and still not be deserving of the award. The award should go to the script that either comes the closest to flawless or achieves more than any other competing script.
Let it be stated that Kenneth Lonnergan’s script is great. The characters are memorable and the twists and turns are heart-wrenching. However, there is one glaring issue with this script.
It is not a story.
Now hold off the protests. There is a fine line between a story and a script with a series of important moments, which is exactly what Manchester By The Sea is. There are a lot of qualifications to what make a great story, but one of the most important elements is characters working towards a goal with an obstacle standing in the way.
There are no goals in this picture. What we have is two characters that are effected by a tragedy and then living through it. It can be debated that Lee (Casey Affleck) is trying to get back to the way his life was before and Lee’s nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges) wants to stay in Manchester. Neither of these goals become clear, as they are just prophesized internal goals, which are created by the audience and not the screenwriter. Instead, what we have is two tragic moments that effect two characters and bring them together in the physical sense.
With this device, we are certainly entertained, but we are never working towards anything during the process of the film. Lee’s brother dies from a heart attack and has to live in Manchester, Massachusetts to take care of his nephew until the funeral. They cannot bury his brother until the ground thaws, leaving Lee and Patrick to live with one another until it does. During this time, we find out about Lee’s past and why he moved from Manchester. Later in the film, we find out that Lee has a plan to have Patrick adopted by a family friend once his dad is buried. This could be an important plot point, but it isn’t introduced until way too late in the film. Any character goals should be introduced early on in the movie, in order for us to follow the character’s on their journey.
This certainly may be considered as nit-picking an otherwise great film, but this is the Academy Award we are talking about here. You have to nit-pick in order to differentiate the great from the extraordinary.
If one were to compare this script to the other nominated scripts, all of those other scripts accomplish what Manchester does while still establishing a clear, motivated story.
With Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthimis Filippou’s The Lobster, there was an incredibly original story about a society that gives it’s people 45 days to find a romantic companion or else they will turn into an animal. It is a story about how much we invest in companionship vs. the cynical views on the same ideal, not choosing a side of either debate. It makes you laugh and feel for it’s characters all at once. In addition to all of this, we have clear motivations for characters. David (Colin Farrell) is the film’s protagonist and with the nature of the story, his clear goal is to find a companion, but faces obstacles because of the society he is currently living in.
To pull another, we have Taylor Sheridan’s Hell or High Water. This is a much more simple script about two bank-robbing brothers, but it deals with the themes of family and powerful banks: two themes that can strike a cord with a majority of audience members. It may be more of a “fun” movie than Manchester, but it doesn’t need to be incredibly serious to accomplish it’s mission and touch it’s audience. The clear goals of the brothers are to set aside a certain amount of money to pay off their recently-deceased mother’s house and then leave the house to the next generation of the family, with the obvious obstacle of being arrested for the crimes.
The point of all this is that other scripts accomplished one of the most essential objectives of a story, which is creating an important goal early on in the film. It should be the priority for any screenwriter, but Lonnergan seemed to ignore it. As an audience, we should be in the know from the start what the point of the story is. This way, we can know what we are working towards and become invested. We can also be invested through tragedy, but it’s still not telling a story. All it accomplishes is making us feel sympathetic for the misery of a character(s), but we never go on a journey.
This does not make Manchester By The Sea a bad script or a bad film, but when you compare it to it’s competitors, it does not hold up.