Kenneth Lonergan’s first film in five years might be his best to date. Manchester by the Sea is a subtle masterpiece about grief, family, and reconnecting with buried emotions. Casey Affleck is terrific and deserving of the early Oscar buzz that his performance is generating, and Lucas Hedges is fantastic, as well. A film that is both tragic and uplifting, Manchester by the Sea is not one to miss.
The film opens with a flashback. Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is on his family’s fishing boat with his nephew Patrick (the young version, played by Ben O’Brien) and his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler), with Lee and Patrick bonding over shark mythology. Later, we see Lee in his new environment—the somewhat catatonic janitor of an apartment complex in Quincey, MA. Soon he gets a phone call, and we know the news is not good. His brother Joe has passed away due to congestive heart failure, a condition that we learn he has been suffering from for some time now. With this news, Lee winds up in Manchester-by-the-Sea, his hometown, and a place he has not been in a while due to tragic circumstances that unfold in flashback throughout the film.
Lee’s reunion with his hometown is awkward at first, as are his first few encounters with his now 16-year-old nephew Patrick (with a sensational performance by Lucas Hedges, who is reminiscent of a young Matt Damon—a producer on the film, incidentally). Lee soon learns that his brother Joe has tapped Lee to be Patrick’s guardian, a job that Lee is not ready for on many levels. The rest of the film deals primarily with Lee’s relationship to Patrick—can Lee become a father-figure to a nephew he barely knows, while struggling with a smattering of inner demons? Additionally, Patrick navigates his newfound life as he deals with anger issues, girl problems, and an alcoholic mother (played by Gretchen Mol) who he has not seen in years, along with her new, and very Christian, husband Jeffrey (Matthew Broderick). Meanwhile, Lee must find inner peace as he reconnects with his pregnant ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams) and learns how to adjust to a new life he never expected to be living.
Manchester by the Sea is a remarkable film. The subtle script and filmmaking by auteur Kenneth Lonergan (who both wrote and directed) is breathtaking. Often, the drama happens offscreen, but what we experience as an audience is profound. One example of this is the three framed photographs that Lee possesses. We see them first in a flashback at Lee’s place in Quincey, as Lee packs them up and puts them away in a blanket. We then see them in his bedroom in Manchester-by-the-Sea as he places them out on his nightstand. Finally, we see Patrick discover the photographs in Lee’s room. We never actually see the photographs, but we can easily deduce what is in each of them, allowing us to be active participants in the storytelling. Lonergan does a fantastic job of giving us just enough information, letting the story unfold in a methodical yet spellbinding way, from beginning to end.
Casey Affleck is getting a lot of attention for his performance as Lee Chandler, and it is all deserved. Affleck runs the gamut of emotions throughout the film. This really is one of the best and most nuanced characters written in quite some time, and Affleck is up to the challenge. He navigates extraordinarily tragic circumstances in the film—the death of his brother being just the tip of the iceberg—and Affleck manages to breathe life into a flawed, but redeemable protagonist. Near the beginning of the film, we see Lee handle the tenants of his building as he deals with their plumbing issues. Affleck is subdued and does not have many lines throughout this montage, but we experience a hidden depth beneath it all—a depth that is explored throughout the rest of the film. Lee has complicated relationships in the film—relationships with his older brother, his nephew, his ex-wife, his hometown. Affleck manages to find the truth in his performance, and he will undoubtedly be nominated for the Best Actor Oscar for it.
Manchester by the Sea is one of the best films of 2016, without a doubt. Casey Affleck is spectacular, as is the rest of the cast, and Kenneth Lonergan creates his best film in years, outdoing even his classic 2000 film You Can Count On Me. You have to be in the right mood to see it—it is difficult to watch at times, and your heart breaks more than once throughout—but this is simply a must-see film. See it in the theater before awards season if you can.