“Manchester by the Sea” is written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan. It stars Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, Lucas Hedges, Liam McNeill, C.J. Wilson, Heather Burns, Tate Donovan, Josh Hamilton, and Matthew Broderick.
Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea is a film better experienced than described. It almost plays better in retrospect, growing with distance, rather than diminishing. Immediately after it ended, I knew that I liked what I saw, but not much beyond that. It was only the following day, as I reflected on the story, that it dawned on me just how well crafted this film is. It opens up to you as you’re watching it and continues to do so afterwards. To fully articulate its brilliance requires spoilers, and to even allude to its thematic implications might give too much away.
Early in the film, Lee Chandler (Affleck), the superintendent for a Boston apartment complex, receives some distressing news. His brother, Joe (Chandler), has been in a boating accident and is in the hospital. Joe suffers from a heart condition, so Lee knows this is serious. We soon discover that Joe has died, and his will entrusts his teenage son, Patrick (Hedges), to Lee’s care.
It’s a set-up out of a Hallmark movie. There is nothing flashy or gimmicky here, in the plotting or in its presentation. What makes Manchester shine is its well-hone sense of story and character. The writing and performances take center stage here (which makes sense, given Lonergan’s background in theater). It is in every sense a small, quiet movie. The writing is great. Lonergan’s screenplay is subtle, continually avoiding the obvious. The way the characters deal with grief is reined in and naturalistic. There aren’t a ton of big cathartic moments or emotional outbursts, but when such moments do arrive (Michelle Williams’ big moment, guaranteed to be her Oscar clip, comes to mind) their impact is amplified. I love that Lonergan makes Patrick an actual character with flaws, rather than the innocent prop a lesser movie would make him into. I also love that he doesn’t shy away from humor. Manchester has some very funny moments, all organic and in keeping with the restrained atmosphere.
The performances are excellent across the board. Michelle Williams does not get much screen time, but she has a pivotal function in the story, and her aforementioned big moment is an important beat in the story. She makes quite an impact when she is on screen. Lucas Hedges really comes into his own here. He breathes life into Patrick, making him feel like a real teenager, and a fairly complex one at that. He is continually likable despite being a bit of a jerk, and also gets some of the biggest laughs of the film. Kyle Chandler, who appears solely in flashbacks, does an excellent of job of casting a shadow over everything taking place in the present. His dynamic with Lee is tender and believable, and we can infer a great deal about their relationship from what we see of him. The highlight, as you might have guessed, is Casey Affleck in the lead role. This is his best performance since The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Between these two films, he has demonstrated that he is a truly great actor. This is a very internal performance. Lee is constantly trying to hold his emotions in, but is not always successful. The writing combined with Affleck’s work creates a complex and beautiful psychology.
My only complaints are minor nitpicks. During one vital scene in which a character is telling another what happened to him the night before, the score is a tad overbearing, which is a shame as the content of scene is devastating. The music undermines the emotion slightly. My other issue is Matthew Broderick. He has what essentially amounts to a cameo. I mean he’s fine, but his presence is distracting and took me out of the movie for a minute (people in my screening laughed when he showed up). Someone less well known would have made more sense in the part.
Manchester by the Sea is a movie that gets better the more I think about it. Kenneth Lonergan has made something truly special here. I can’t wait for more people to see it.
We screened the film at the New York Film Festival.