Review: Manchester By The Sea (2016)

It’s hard to resist the stubborn, agonizing charm of a film like Manchester By The Sea. This is a sad film with more genuine humour than most comedies. It’s also agonizing in the tragedies it inflicts upon its stubbornly withdrawn characters. And yet, there is also emotional growth here and the characters are so well defined by writer and director Kenneth Lonergan’s script and the performances of the excellent cast that their opacity becomes intimate. Like Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, the characters’ silences speak volumes. The result is a powerful film that never reaches for catharsis, but might accomplish it anyway.

Manchester By The Sea focuses on Casey Affleck’s Lee Chandler, a quiet, blue-collar man living a humdrum life as a custodian in Boston. The titular Manchester is his hometown, a township in Essex county in the greater Boston area. During flashbacks interspersed throughout the hefty runtime, we learn that Lee suffered great tragedy in the past. He suffers another tragedy when his older brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), dies of heart disease. Joe’s will leaves the care of his almost-grown son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), to Lee, even though Lee wants nothing to do with more familial responsibility.

There are moments here that’ll break your heart. Many are sandwiched between scenes of mundane routine or gentle caricature, as if simulating the way life’s biggest moments are overwhelmed by the daily grind. Many of these scenes are obvious showcases for the actors. For example, late in the film, Lee has a roadside talk with his ex-wife, Randi (Michelle Williams). The way that both Affleck and, especially, Williams escalate the conversation from simple hellos to gushing emotion is heartrending. The conversation says almost nothing explicit, but an entire history is implied in the subtext, as well as all the rage, heartbreak, regret, and pity to be found in any personal history.

Not all the actorly showcases are as dramatic. Newcomer Lucas Hedges, who looks and acts like a miniaturized Matt Damon (who also produced the film), plays a recurring gag about multiple girlfriends for all its worth. He holds his own among a cast of heavyweights. The film as a whole will hold your attention. It will making you laugh or cry. It even may infuriate you or cause you to reflect on your own emotions, or, alternatively, your frustrating inability to express them.

If only Lonergan were a better visual storyteller, Manchester By The Sea might’ve been one for the history books. His domestic, long take wide shots benefit the actors, but they do nothing to enhance the scene beyond the script. The film’s heavy use of flashback demands a more rigorous visual style, especially when it distorts the way the characters (and the viewers) see the narrative.

As it stands, Manchester By The Sea is as good an actors’ showcase as you’ll get this year. It’s substantial and emotional, showing the ways that ordinary lives and simple decisions can make for great tragedy.

8 out of 10

Manchester By The Sea (2016, USA)

Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan; starring Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, Gretchen Mol, Lucas Hedges.