Manchester by the Sea
Director: Kenneth Lonergan
Starring: Casey Affleck, Kyle Chandler, Michelle Williams, Lucas Hedges
While built upon a seemingly cliché premise, Manchester by the Sea is a beautifully-layered family drama that gets to the heart of grief in a truly penetrating way.
It begins in Boston, where Lee Chandler (Affleck) works as a handyman for an apartment complex. Early on, it’s easy to see that Lee’s life is undesirable, as he plunges a resident’s horribly clogged toilet. While presenting the bleakness of Lee’s life, the opening scenes are much more comical than the rest of the film.
After receiving the news that his older brother Joe (Chandler) has died of a heart attack, Lee reluctantly gets in his car and returns to his hometown, Manchester-by-the-sea. When he arrives, he learns he has been designated the legal guardian of Joe’s teenage son Patrick (Hedges) and is conflicted with the decision to follow his brother’s request.
Patrick is a relatively popular teenager with a quick wit who hasn’t processed the emotional weight of his father’s death, instead using humour to cope. He’s more concerned with trying to get into the pants of one of his two girlfriends than dealing with his loss. Newcomer Hedges provides comic relief to an otherwise dark film but delivers a compelling performance in the process.
Affleck’s performance in Manchester by the Sea is incredibly authentic and honest. The emotional intensity he brings to the role supports the film's atmosphere and overarching themes well. In one scene, he doesn't do anything but look still and serious while identifying the body of his dead brother. Other actors might have chosen to break down and cry to look emotional, but his powerful expression was all that was needed.
The film’s narrative is partially driven by flashbacks that add more nuance to the current circumstances. We see more of Joe’s life and Lee’s marriage to Randi (Williams). Though she has a very small role, Williams is exceptional. Affleck challenges her to fully bring out the loud, controlling, and compassionate qualities in her character. Affleck and Williams have great chemistry, which helps draw you into all of the melancholy aspects of their relationship.
In one scene, they meet on the street after not speaking with each other for a long time, talk for a few minutes and completely lose control of their feelings. While this seems straightforward and overdone, it is one of the strongest and most powerful scenes in the film as it finally brings Affleck’s character to tears and forces him to accept the tragedies that have plagued him from the start.
Director and screenwriter Kenneth Lonergan has made an amazing film. His previous efforts You Can Count on Me and Margaret were very well received; Lonergan has a knack for crafting human stories. His latest effort fully delivers because of his ability to create fully realized characters.
Manchester by the Sea's lifelike storyline and incredible acting ensemble makes it a strong film that has emotional resonance as the theatre lights come on.