For those, like me, who are not the greatest at geography Manchester-by-the-Sea is not only the name of the latest film written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan and starring Casey Affleck, but it is also a town in Massachusetts roughly 30 miles northeast of the city of Boston. The film, of course, takes place in the city, but drops the hyphens when writing its name, and it is this small fishing and touristy town of roughly 5,000 residents which gives the movie so much of its atmosphere. The character’s accents are Boston, their attitudes small town, and the structures 100 percent New England. Casey Affleck’s Lee Chandler left the town years ago to become a handyman in Boston due to a tragedy which takes some time to find out about, but you suspect right away when you hear people speaking in hushed tones about how he’s “that Lee Chandler”, and has to return when he finds out his brother Joe (played by, strangely enough, Kyle Chandler of Friday Night Lights and Bloodlines fame) has died. The very introverted and withdrawn Lee is more shocked than anyone to find out that one of the provisions of Joe’s will is that Lee is now to be Joe’s son Patrick’s legal guardian.
Manchester by the Sea is a pretty remarkable film that defies any easy description. It focuses on a series of tragic events in the lives of the Chandler family, but despite that it’s not a film I would classify as a tragedy nor a movie about overcoming hardships. It’s central character is very closed off purposely, but much like real introverts its not something he does consciously so he’s more than welcome to let others in if they show a desire, and this isn’t a movie about him learning a lesson or changing as a person. Ultimately, what Manchester by the Sea is is a look at a family separating and coming to terms with the events in their lives that caused the separation and where their new place in each other’s lives now needs to be.
If you’ve hear about this Manchester by the Sea prior to this, you have most likely heard about it because of Casey Affleck’s performance, and the praise he is getting is definitely deserved. Affleck gives a very low-key, understated, downright morose performance, yet still manages to command your attention every second he is on screen which is nearly every second of the running time of the movie. While he is the standout, there is not a bad performance to be seen here. The already mentioned Kyle Chandler is wonderful as one of the few outgoing, lively characters to be seen here, Lucas Hedges as Patrick Chandler Lee’s nephew and new ward is outstanding and a great foil to Affleck, and Michelle Williams, while in a smaller role than many of the others, gives an incredibly realistic and nuanced performance as Lee’s ex-wife Randi. Every performance here just feels so real, and as you go further down the rabbit hole that is the life of the Chandler family gets even more so showing how much talent and thought is behind each and every one of these individuals you see on the screen.
Kenneth Lonergan is the off screen star of the piece as both writer and director, both roles which a tackles with immense talent. The screenplay he gives us is very complicated and needs to show us an entire history so we can make sense of the present of the film, and never does it become hard to follow nor overly melodramatic. While I admit to thinking at times that there are so many tragic incidents in this family’s back story that I was close to inappropriate laughter once or twice near the end of the movie’s second act, it was only a little hard to swallow because of the number of occurences, never because of cause and effect or character reaction. Everything flowed naturally and realistically, and absolutely oozes with New England character as a bit of icing on this particular slice of life story.
Manchester by the Sea is a great example of a realistic character piece. It’s a very slow burning movie which through its portrayal of a broken man and his broken family sneaks up on us and leaves us in a state of emotion far stronger than we’d noticed. You feel for Lee, Patrick, Randi, and everyone else we meet in this story, but it takes one of the film’s few and spaced about but intense emotional scenes for us to realize just how much they’re situation has gotten under our skin. The movie is tragic, but never melodramatic, uplifting, but never schmaltzy, and ultimately therapeutic in how it shows that while life may never be easy, never be what we expect, and doesn’t offer pat solutions, we all understand this and we will be there for each other, even if not always exactly in the way we thought.
Rating: 8.0 out of 10
A side note about the movie which doesn’t belong in the movie proper: I saw this film right after watching Nocturnal Animals, am struck with how much these two films are mirror images of each other. Nocturnal Animals is an often pretentious movie about upper class and hillbilly stereotypes being cruel to each other and bringing about more and more cruelty for very petty reasons, while Manchester by the Sea is about a working class family going through tragic event after tragic event and showing how they do what they can to overcome what life throws at them and ultimately manages to make us cautiously optimistic. I just find it interesting that two films getting major buzz at the same time for very much the same reasons can be such polar opposites in nearly every other way.