Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan has created his first masterpiece. “Manchester by the Sea” is an unqualified success of intimate filmmaking, storytelling and psychology.
Modern filmmaking often focuses on larger-than-life escapist narratives. Superheroes and talking animals make up the top 10 highest-grossing films of 2016, so when a film as personal as “Manchester by the Sea” comes along and reverses the trend, it packs a strong emotional punch.
Casey Affleck plays Lee Chandler, an apartment handyman in Boston who lives a simple, apparently lonely life. When Lee learns his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has abruptly died, he immediately travels to his hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts. Joe left his son Patrick (Lucas Hedges) in Lee’s care, expecting him to move across the state, a request that both confuses and outrages Lee.
Much of the film plays out in flashback, gradually telling each character’s painful history. No character in “Manchester by the Sea” has lived an easy life, each struggling to overcome their past and learn to handle their own grief. Joe raised Patrick for most of his life without his mother, and Lee made a tragic mistake in his past, transforming a stereotypical Bostonian party-boy into a quiet and somber man.
The story reads as extraordinarily trite and typical of the “awards season” drama, but Lonergan elevates the plot through nonlinear storytelling techniques and the dynamic performances of his actors. Where the trailers sold an uplifting tale of familial love after the death of a father, Lonergan delivers a devastating story of people who have no clue how to cope with their grief. By saving Lee’s backstory as a mid-movie reveal, “Manchester” quickly turns from the decent if predictable Oscar film to a meditation on sorrow.
Every performance in “Manchester by the Sea” utterly shines. Affleck is perfect as Lee, making a wide range of emotion evident despite an understated performance. Michelle Williams plays Randi, Lee’s ex-wife, and delivers the most powerful moments of the film alongside Affleck.
Twenty-year-old Lucas Hedges is the breakout star, playing Joe’s grieving, confused, love-stricken son Patrick. Hedges is, in many ways, the heart of the film. Without him, it would slip into gloom, but he is able to supply a surprising amount of humor. Patrick has the strongest arc of the story, gradually learning to handle his own pain. He leans on friends and girlfriends — yes, plural — to help him get by without actually processing the death of his father. When the grief eventually hits him, Hedges performs the realization perfectly, silently shaking and crying.
Lonergan shows an intentionally drab Massachusetts in winter, and the constant overcast weather matches the story’s tone while punctuating the few moments of color. The same can be said of the sound design. While silence fills the first seconds of the film, more pivotal moments are emphasized with the incorporation of the mournful, orchestral score, which progressively crescendos until it overwhelms even dialogue.
The script itself is wonderfully intimate and personal, feeling somehow autobiographical despite Lonergan’s promise of originality. Where some stories deal with grief and offer the characters closure at the end, “Manchester by the Sea” offers realism. The movie doesn’t end by wrapping up the characters’ stories with the promise of happiness — it simply stops. It is deliberately unsatisfying, mirroring the complex lives of the characters within the story.