Review: Manchester By The Sea
Everything is heavy here. From the thick coats needed to weather the blistering cold, to the thick Boston accents to be expected from Affleck-led films, to the raw and visceral emotions on display as the events unfold. And while everything is heavy, nothing is heavy-handed in Kenneth Lonergan's somber meditation on family, loss and moving on. Couple the quality of the material with the veritable masterclass acting on display and the result is a gut-punch with the potential to leave you reeling.
The film revolves around Lee Chandler (played ably by Casey Affleck), who, after the death of his brother, Joe (played by Kyle Chandler), is charged with caring for Joe's teenage son, Patrick (played by Lucas Hedges) and picking up the pieces as everyone tries to deal with the loss. Lee now lives in Boston where he is a building handyman. Throughout the film, there are hints at the reasons Lee left their hometown of Manchester, but that revelation eventually allows the audience a chance to understand why it is he struggles with the responsibility of raising Patrick.
Through very subtle flashbacks that meld beautifully with the present-day elements of the story, Lonergan establishes who these characters are and how their varied histories shape their reactions and actions after Joe's death. The crescendo of all of this is a devastating scene between Lee and Randi, his ex-wife and the mother of his children (played by Michelle Williams). In the end, you end up understanding who Lee Chandler has become, while also gaining insight into what is next for him.
From a filmmaking perspective, Lonergan's direction rewards a close eye as he weaves the spaces in the movie together in ways that give past and present clear distinctions while maintaining a sense of space. The wear on the stairs lets you know what year it is, but the views through the windows let you know it is always Manchester. These subtle backdrops reinforce the idea that Lee has a history here and that history doesn't go away with time--it is who he is now. The idea that the events of your life can become who you are at a deeper level permeates the film and becomes clearer as the audience learns more. This idea is crystallized by the pictures of each of his children that Lee packs and unpacks as he moves from place to place and tries to keep living life.
The film is beautifully acted. From Lee's angst being perfectly encapsulated by Affleck's fidgeting looks askance to Michelle Williams maximizing her scenes in a way that is reminiscent of Viola Davis's stolen scene in Doubt. Everyone involved brings their A-game and the result is a tour-de-force of emotional range. The standout newcomer is Lucas Hedges who does wonderful work as the teenager who would be trying to figure out life regardless and is now face with life as an orphan. Without these portrayals, there would definitely be the potential for the material to fall flat, so it is a credit to Lonergan that he was able to draw out these performances.
While the technique on display is undeniable, the characters are somewhat idiosyncratic. Because none of the major characters are wholly likable, it is certainly possible to feel a certain detachment from the scenes with the most emotional currency. It is also possible to not connect with some of the themes the film relies upon, as they are not exactly universal. To some, it would be considered a privilege to even think about estate planning issues, let alone have them be a "problem." But the major players involved are doing good enough work to overcome these kinds of screenplay deficiencies. If you are prepared for a somewhat somber meditation on life, death, family and belonging, Manchester By The Sea offers 137 minutes of just that.
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