Written by Matt Taylor
It’s hard to imagine someone leaving Manchester by the Sea with dry eyes. The first film in five years from playwright turned director Kenneth Lonergan is, at times, painful to watch, if only because of how much hardship these characters endure. But what truly makes the film a powerful emotional experience, as well as a great film overall, is the unbelievable sense of realism that Lonergan creates for these characters to live in. This movie feels like a slice of real life, not a manipulative melodrama and, in between sobs, the audience will undoubtedly be able to relate to what’s happening onscreen.
Set in Boston, Casey Affleck stars as Lee Chandler, a janitor living alone after a tragic experience from a few years ago. His carefully structured, mundane life is thrown into upheaval, however, when his brother (Kyle Chandler) passes away suddenly, making Lee the legal guardian of his 16-year-old nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). And while Lee cares greatly about his nephew, the question of where they will live, and whether or not he is even qualified to raise a child, weigh upon their relationship. As both men ponder these questions, they are forced to address past traumas and consider whether or not they truly want to repair their old life.
Whereas other writers could have milked this story for over-the-top drama, Lonergan ties a sturdy anchor to his film and plants it firmly in reality. There aren’t any dramatic plot twists or sudden third act revelations. In fact, he reveals the traumatic event from Lee’s past fairly quickly, instead choosing to dwell on his grief and not keep audiences in suspense. The sense of realism only makes these sad moments have more of an impact. But it also works in the opposite direction: the film doesn’t wallow in depression, and has moments of levity that are truly hilarious. Even little moments, like exchanges between family members at parties and conversations at a bar, come off as believable.
The cast is also unanimously perfect, with Casey Affleck leading the ensemble with the best performance of his career. It is a fully lived-in performance, with Affleck embodying Lee’s pain, and showing it in quick flashes, whether they be facial expressions, body ticks or dialogue. Newcomer Lucas Hedges, who has one of the showier performances in the film, still manages to impress in quieter moments, matching Affleck’s work. For much of the film, Hedges is hilarious as the rude, rebellious teenage orphan, but he really shines when he’s forced to subtly reveal his intense pain. Much will also be made of Michelle Williams’ role as Lee’s ex-wife. Despite only appearing in three scenes, Williams shines in some of the most memorable sequences in the film, disappearing into a role unlike any she’s played before. While she’s a bit too over the top in her final scene, her performance is commendable overall.
There are a few minor problems, many of them connected to the overbearing score, which fails to fit the movie’s tone and even overpowers the dialogue at points. Another subplot involving Lucas’ mother also feels somewhat brushed over, and the film takes a bit to really find its dramatic momentum. Once the narrative kicks into high gear, the film remains compelling and incredibly powerful. The ending might feel abrupt at first, but it eventually becomes clear that the conclusion is, well, realistic. Real life doesn’t usually conclude with dramatic confrontations or complete resolutions, and Manchester by the Sea follows suit, and we’re all better off because of it.