Movies: ‘Manchester by the Sea’ is a masterpiece

The film is awash with genuine emotion.

December 1, 2016 16:44
3 minute read.
‘Manchester by the Sea’

‘Manchester by the Sea’. (photo credit: PR)

Hebrew title: Manchester li’yad ha’yam
Directed by Kenneth Lonergan
With Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, Kyle Chandler, Michelle Williams
Running time: 137 minutes
Rating: R (for language throughout and some sexual content)

The centerpiece of Kenneth Lonergan’s drama Manchester by the Sea is a relatively short scene, a conversation between two characters that contains the most moving moments I’ve seen on screen in years. Neither character offers any stunning revelations; but the dynamic between these two, how it changes and how it stays the same, is more exciting than a thousand car chases.

I can’t reveal more without spoiling one of the mysteries of the plot, but the description of the impact of this scene will be familiar to anyone who has seen Lonergan’s two previous movies, You Can Count on Me (2000) and Margaret (2011). His movies feel utterly real, almost like documentaries, but they are artfully constructed.

Every moment, every line in Manchester by the Sea is carefully thought out, always moving the story along and deepening our knowledge of the characters. And it’s all seamless. While so many other directors set up situations and telegraph their next move in the most unsubtle ways, with Lonergan you can’t see the strings.

Like his two previous movies, this film is about grief and loss. It’s set mostly in the Massachusetts town from which it takes its name, a fishing town. It moves back and forth in time without telegraphing what’s a flashback, which is confusing at first; but once you get used to it, it flows beautifully.

In the present day, Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is a janitor in some apartment buildings in Quincy, Massachusetts, where he is fine fixing clogged toilets and throwing out the garbage but gets into arguments with the tenants over small things. For fun, he goes out to bars and picks fights. When he gets a call that his brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), is in the hospital back home in Manchester, he takes off. When he arrives, his brother has just died. Lee stays to console Patrick (Lucas Hedges), his teenage nephew, and arrange the funeral, but it is clear that he is anxious to leave as soon as he can.

This is odd because he doesn’t seem to have anything to return to in Quincy, and his nephew’s mother, an alcoholic (Gretchen Mol), is not in the picture. When it turns out that, without consulting Lee, Joe has named him as Patrick’s legal guardian, his instinct is to refuse.

As he goes around the town, taking care of the estate, trying to figure out what to do with his brother’s fishing boat, bringing Patrick to his various sport and band practices, as well as dates (the boy has two girlfriends), it’s clear that something is going on with Lee that no one is talking about. Seeing his ex-wife, Randi (Michelle Williams), at Joe’s funeral seems to throw him far more than a typical run-in with an ex would.

As the story progresses, there are flashbacks to a time in Lee’s life when he was a much more social, open person, when he and Joe would take Patrick, then a little kid, out fishing. Gradually, we learn why Lee’s life is so hard and why it’s difficult for him to be back in Manchester.

This might all sound very grim, but Manchester by the Sea certainly isn’t one of those pointless downer movies, nor is it some kind of shallow “lifeaffirming” story where a grumpy hero learns how to love again. It’s about how a very particular group of characters deal with grief; but in getting to their truth, Lonergan tells a story that audiences from any background can relate to.

The dialogue is often funny, particularly the sparring between Lee and his nephew, one of those kids who are preternaturally social and at ease in high school, while Lee resists all interaction with the world.

The acting is brilliant, especially by Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams, but the entire cast is very good. Affleck and Williams are considered the front runners in the Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress Oscar categories, and many are predicting that the film will be nominated for Best Picture and many other awards.

Whether or not it gets the awards, this is the rare movie that evokes genuine emotions, feelings that will stay with you long after the film ends.

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