Directed by Kenneth Lonergan
Runtime: 137 minutes
Manchester by the Sea is an amazing film. Its study into the depths of human relationships during grieving is more honest than 95% of the movies I have seen this year. The movie is close to flawless in the way it constructs the characters and the emotions it explores. It’s not escapist fare, but what it does provide are moments of comedy without incorporating shameless manipulation.
The film introduces us to Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), a quiet loner working as a janitor in winter-set Boston. His surprising lack of social skills causes tension at work and bar fights. When he gets a phone call that his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has passed away from a heart attack, Lee drives to his hometown Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts to make funeral arrangements and break the news to Joe’s 16-year-old son Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Lee is shocked to learn that Joe has named him Patrick’s guardian, and to accept the role he is required to permanently relocate to Manchester. However, Lee is tortured by the memories of a disaster that lead to his divorce from his wife Rhandi (Michelle Williams) and departure from Manchester many years ago.
What sounds like a generic plot steers far from a generic formula. Manchester by the Sea doesn’t resort to the clichés of older-man-and-young-boy-meet-and-teach-each-other-life-lessons, or man-returns-to-his-roots-and-reconnects-with-old-friends stories. The movie immerses viewers into Lee’s state of emotional numbness and the impolite way he copes with his situation. He is somewhat beyond healing, but flashbacks to his past reveal how he got to where he is. He tries the best he can to parent Patrick, even though he resists relocating to Manchester and Patrick refuses to leave his friends, hockey team and two girlfriends for his uncle’s monotonous life in Boston.
Manchester by the Sea is a milestone for playwright-turned-filmmaker Kenneth Lonergan, who directed You Can Count on Me and is credited for writing Analyse This and Gangs of New York. The film’s strength is Lonergan’s simplistic approach and intelligent screenplay: the characters are not always the nicest of people, but they are full of dimensions. Lonergan is gifted in using actors to deliver quiet, subtle emotions and comedy that isn’t ill-timed.
Casey Affleck has given many fine performances, often in supporting roles and this is easily his best performance. He brilliantly embodies Lee’s impolite and deadpan mannerisms while making him a sympathetic character. Newcomer Lucas Hedges (who we saw in Moonrise Kingdom) is a brilliant counterpart as Lee’s cocky, sexually-driven nephew. Their rough and sarcastic rapport is key to the fun needed for such a dark story. Michelle Williams has limited screen time, but her moments are the film’s most gut-wrenching.
One understandable complaint viewers may have with Manchester by the Sea is its conclusion. It’s not a warm and fuzzy ending (depending on your preference), but there is a speck of hope for Lee. There is closure without betraying his character or cheapening what he has gone through. After Manchester by the Sea ends, you feel like you’ve seen something rare – gorgeously-realised characters that bring out so many emotions in you. The movie is a dark, soulful, and funny portrait of family and loss.