‘Manchester by the Sea’ (2016) | Movie Review

This review was initially published on January 26, 2016 from the Sundance Film Festival.

There is a scene in Manchester by the Sea where Lee (Casey Affleck) and his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) are discussing the body preservation of Patrick’s recently deceased dad Joe (Kyle Chandler), as the snow in Manchester is too thick to be able to dig a plot immediately. As this discussion occurs, the two are wandering back and forth on the street, searching for their parked car. The scene is perfect. The emotions are high and a decision is not easily made. They are tense and urgent because of the cold. They recognize the existential absurdity of their conversation. There are macro and micro stakes built into the scene’s construction. It’s one of those scenes every screenwriter aims to create with each new INT. or EXT. they type. Manchester by the Sea is one of those movies where almost every scene is this kind of scene, a film that continuously builds the emotionally rocky world of the New England Chandler family to an honest, powerful whole with a titanic performance from Affleck at its center that finds success in never explicitly stating what these people are feeling. It’s masterful filmmaking.

Affleck’s Lee Chandler works as a handyman for a couple of apartment buildings in Boston, living in a bare-bones single room. He’s a guy going through the motions of life, and if someone gives him some lip or a suspicious look, he will pounce. When he gets the news of his brother’s death, he makes his way up to Manchester to take care of his brother’s affairs and his sixteen year-old nephew, due to his alcoholic mother (Gretchen Mol) being out of the picture. Manchester comes with a lot of baggage for Lee, which includes an ex-wife (Michelle Williams) and three kids, something he has never reconciled or even tried to reconcile with.

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Kenneth Lonergan, behind indie favorites You Can Count on Me and Margaret, knows behavior and thrives on examining all the facets of how people from very unique perspectives deal with their demons. Thankfully, this rarely includes people stating their feelings, if at all. How they physically manifest their pain and talk about anything but it is a far more fascinating and engaging approach. Affleck, who has never been a particularly vocal performer, puts on a performance so bottled to the brim you understand why everyone who interacts with him simultaneously pities and fears him. That becomes even more apparent the more you learn about his past in the town, done in flashback reveals that never feel like a cheap story device but completely honest to the situations that bring them about. Affleck’s hopelessness is not overbearing, though, as he still retains small traces of the charm and wit of the man he once was.

The humor may be what surprised me most in Manchester by the Sea. You don’t necessarily think a dead family member drama set in the dreary winter of a small Massachusetts town would have many laughs, but if the humanity is true, humor should be there as a natural part of life. Patrick is sixteen years old, and he still has to deal with the awkward experiences of a teenager, like attempting to have sex with his girlfriend even though her mom is downstairs and regularly checks up on them. The characters also joke with each other, both because it’s fun to joke around and humor is an excellent way to process pain, even if not everyone can appreciate that.

Many film critics often acknowledge filmmakers who create a tremendous sense of place, and Lonergan is no exception. This isn’t some kick people get if they recognize a place they’ve been before or anything like that. This is about truthfulness. If the people and the world they inhabit feel real, the drama within it not only becomes credible but effective. When the two are separate entities, finding the heart and honesty proves to be challenging and alienating. An audience can easily spot a situation that feels phony, and nothing is phony about Manchester by the Sea. Even Kyle Chandler’s distinct drawl is toned back for a more real New England accent, something I was curious if he had the ability to pull off.

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This is a quiet and purposefully shaggy movie. A scene will occur where you may not know exactly why it needed to be included, but everything serves the greater emotional mosaic Lonergan is crafting. Patrick’s friends having a debate on whether or not Star Trek is good, not a typical debate you hear from hockey players, could, at first glance, be seen as superfluous. It’s not. It shows us how he doesn’t want to talk head-on about his dad with his friends and as a reminder that life and mundane, everyday things still go on.

Manchester by the Sea sneaks up on you. The film excises explosive moments and emotional crescendos. Affleck doesn’t get the “Oscar scene.” You know, the one where he gets to make the big speech about his feelings. That never happens. Through sheer filmmaking ability and dynamite action-centric performances, it never tries to grab your attention and only asks for it. Not only do you give it your attention, but by the end, you’re in a pool of your own tears without the need for cheap, cloying manipulation or artificial, easy tearjerker moments. Familial grief may be a familiar topic independent film, a number of them playing at this year’s Sundance alongside this, but none matchup to the quiet truth Kenneth Lonergan is meditating on, making Manchester by the Sea a true marvel of a movie with an Oscar-deserving performance from Casey Affleck.

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