Kenneth Lonergan’s sensational film, Manchester by the Sea is the first film this year which left me utterly speechless. In the hundreds upon hundreds of movies that I’ve been lucky enough to review over the years, none have contained such a staggering palette of emotions. Manchester by the Sea encapsulates the complexities of life with a level of authenticity so visceral one can’t help but be moved by this film.
The film centers on the story of Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck). Affleck is a janitor who lives in a tiny basement apartment in Boston. Chandler is summoned to Manchester when he learns his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has suffered a heart attack. He arrives as quickly as possible but soon discovers that his brother has passed away. During the reading of the will, Lee is stunned to learn that his brother has named him the guardian of his only son Patrick (Lucas Hedges).
Now, this decision isn’t totally out of left field. At the beginning of the film, we flashbacked to a scene of a young Patrick fishing with Lee and his dad on their boat. Patrick at a young age did seem to have an affinity for his Uncle Lee, but that was so long ago and now Lee is a broken man. He keeps to himself and drinks quite heavily. If he’s completely bored, he ventures into random bars and picks fights with strangers. The people of Manchester look at him strangely, and his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams) rarely talks to him. It’s not hard to understand that he has a past in Manchester, but we aren’t privy to that until much later.
While some might feel waiting to find out what Lee’s past is a tad bit melodramatic, in reality, it’s how life operates. Rarely do we find things out right away. When the audience does finally piece together his past, we realize it’s much worse than anyone anticipated. This realization does help the audience understand Lee’s resistance to being Patrick’s guardian.
Lonergan has a great handle on pacing throughout the film. In some cases, he throws in an extended flashback that provides necessary background knowledge on Lee. Other times the director uses quick cuts from scenes to not only maintain the momentum of the narrative but allow that one moment to stand out. For example, the scene at hockey practice where Lee has to tell Patrick what’s happened to his dad while he’s at hockey practice. The scene is a quick shot of Lee pulling Patrick aside on the other side of the rink followed the look of devastation on Patrick’s face. The pacing of the moment made it seem entirely authentic, and his reaction shattered the hearts of the audience watching it.
However, this film isn’t just a constant tragedy from start to finish. Manchester by the Sea balances adversity with laugh-out-loud moments. For every moment where Lee is trying to confront his demons, there’s another where Lee is trying to give advice to Patrick on dating. For example, mere days after the death of Patrick’s father, he asks Lee if his girlfriend can stay the night. Lee doesn’t care but a second after he agreed to allow her to “stay over,” he turns to him and states, “You know about rubbers and stuff right?” Not only does this show how awkward Lee is at being anyone’s father, but it also shows off his dry wit which breaks the tension repeatedly throughout the movie.
The brilliance of this film isn’t the complexity of its themes. Lonergan has masterfully crafted a narrative which acknowledges the complex nature of living. How do you guide a teenager to make good choices when dating many girls when you’ve screwed up in the past? How can you help a son cope with grief when you don’t even know how to handle it yourself? How can you tell someone to live their life when all you want to do is go back to your life of solitude? How can you tell someone that love will find them when your one true love left you broken? Manchester by the Sea deftly proves that living isn’t a collection of bumpy beginnings and Hollywood endings. “Living” is a collection of intricate moments that are often either – mundane, beautiful, or tragic, which hopefully shape us for the better.
Manchester by the Sea will be considered a serious contender for Best Picture at any number of awards shows and rightfully so. While Michelle Williams isn’t in the film for very long, her scenes are so powerful that she will be considered for awards as well. However, the story of this film is Casey Affleck. His performance is so nuanced and his moments with Lucas Hedges are so powerful that he’s a lock to be at least nominated for Best Actor once Oscar nominations are announced. This type of performance is reminiscent of Brie Larson in the film Room and we know how well that turned out for her.