It’s easy to become skeptical when a movie emerges from film festivals to near universal praise. One has to wonder, as happens often with festival movies, whether or not the hyperbolic praise is rooted in critics sitting through four or five middling movies in a single day and are just relived that one of some quality have slipped through the cracks. All the praise being heaped upon the new film from writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea aren’t rooted hyperbole. This is an astounding piece of cinematic storytelling, one that operates on the highest possible level in every facet of its construction. Manchester by the Sea is one of those rare films that is emotionally devastating and extremely funny as its story of grief and family unfold in one of 2016’s best films. Frankly, you shouldn’t watch trailers for the film, you shouldn’t read reviews for it, you should just rush out and see Manchester by the Sea.
Led by an astounding performance by Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea tells the story of Lee Chandler (Affleck), who lives outside of Boston working as a handyman for a number of apartment buildings. He keeps to himself, quietly working away while spending his nights imbibing multiple alcoholic beverages before starting the grind over again the next day. One day, Lee gets the call that his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has been hospitalized following a flare up of a recurring heart condition. By the time he reaches the seaside town where he brother was hospitalized, Joe has passed away. In the aftermath of the tragedy, Lee is saddled with making the arrangements for Joe’s funeral as well as looking out for Joe’s teenage son Patrick (Lucas Hedges), though he’s not exactly enthusiastic about his newfound guardianship.
Lonergan uses flashbacks to flesh out Lee’s apprehension in raising Patrick, as well as the bond between Lee and deceased brother Joe. The complex relationship with Lee’s ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams) is also given extensive detail (and if anyone dares gives away the details of their relationship you should immediately shun and ridicule them). It’s the storytelling technique that Lonergan uses that emphasizes the brilliance of Manchester by the Sea, with the non-linear fashion employed to gain the maximum effectiveness out of each reveal, each flashback to make an emotionally devastating whole. If you’re not moved by the heart-wrenching aspects of Manchester by the Sea, I’d start to wonder if you’re capable of feeling any emotion at all.
For a film that is dealing with such emotional issues, it’s truly amazing just how incredibly funny Manchester by the Sea is. The interactions between Lee and Patrick are often comical in nature, as if these two characters are so emotionally drained that the only emotion they’re able to convey is humor. It’s a real testament to abilities of Kenneth Lonergan that the film can leave you laughing through the tears in a seemingly effortless fashion. Chills run down your spine as the emotional pain of the characters comes across the screen and then it’s cut with some genuinely comical moments – and yet nothing is forced, everything is immensely honest.
Casey Affleck gives the performance of his career as Lee Chandler. This is a character dealing with the loss of his brother, but his return to Manchester brings forth past pain that he’s spent years trying run from. All that pain and that complex past are visible on Affleck’s weary visage, and his raspy line delivery underscores that pain. The chemistry between Affleck and the young Lucas Hedges is tangible, as the two trade barbs about their prospective futures amidst the grief. Despite the terrible situation that they’re embroiled in, Hedges’ Patrick is written as an actual teenager and not an older screenwriter’s idea of what a teenager is. Having a father who has been dealing with a life threatening condition has prepared Patrick for what has come to pass, and his focus is on his band, his friends, and his never-ending quest to get laid. And yet the character never comes across as unlikable or dishonest.
Nothing in Manchester by the Sea is as devastating as the scenes between Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams. Their characters have an extremely complicated history and their reunion brings a rush of emotions to each of them. Neither character is wrong for how they react considering the circumstances (you’ll know when you see it) and the emotional content is emphasized by the fact that nothing can heal these wounds.
As we rapidly approach awards season, Manchester by the Sea has to be at the forefront of the conversation for any number of awards – Best Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actress, Screenplay, and Editing just to name a few. This is a stunning piece of storytelling that pulls viewers into its emotionally honest story and drives them through a wide range of emotions throughout the layers of its construction. With this film, Kenneth Lonergan places himself among the pantheon of auteurs working today. Manchester by the Sea is one of the standout films of 2016, which has been a great year for film despite underwhelming blockbusters. When a movie can pack the punch of Manchester by the Sea, there’s little need for the spectacle of blockbusters. Spectacular storytelling will always trump special effects.