‘Manchester by the Sea’ Review

From contributing film critic Andrew Gaudion

Every once in a while, there comes along a film that looks (on paper at least) to play to a certain rhythm you expect. In the case of Manchester by the Sea, there are all the markers of the kind of relationship drama that looks to repair two broken individuals in the face of tragedy. It is the kind of narrative that you might have seen played out in a TV movie in a horribly saccharine fashion. Manchester by the Sea is not a film interested in being sappy or all that manipulative. What it does is convey the experience of individuals in the face of personal devastation, affected by moments which fundamentally change who they are, and whose lives don’t often play out as they, and you, would expect. All that and it shares a screenwriter with The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle.  

Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) lives in Quincy, Massachusetts and works as a handy-man in his tenant building, very much keeping himself to himself, except in moments when his fiery temperament gets the better of him. When his brother (Kyle Chandler) dies from a heart attack, Lee must return to his hometown of Manchester to oversee preparations for his brother’s funeral as well as see to his teenage nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), who has suddenly become his responsibility. Coming back to his hometown though proves to be a challenge that Lee may not be able to face.

Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan has had a trying relationship with film. The celebrated playwright has brought us greatness on screen before, most notably with his feature debut You Can Count On Me (2000), a sensitive and intimate family drama that came to signify Lonergan as a writer with a unique and incredibly relatable approach to character relationships. Then, he seemed to hit a snag, with his second directorial effort Margaret (2011) getting drowned by a tough edit and numerous lawsuits. It takes a lot of character to come back from an experience like that, and with Manchester by the Sea, Lonergan has once again firmly established himself as a director capable of something that is quietly yet astronomically profound.

Lonergan’s screenplay delivers a tale that holds many secrets from the audience, secrets that it only divulges at points he deems necessary to deliver a drama that weighs heavy on the soul. These secrets and the reveals that are given to us are well judged, allowing for the characters to feel like individuals with a history, be it one of tragedy or an ordinary life that anyone in an audience could recognise. It has a surprisingly large scope when it comes to the back story of Lee and the town of Manchester, score of an intimate and powerful level.

Lonergan’s rejection of catharsis for Lee and Patrick’s grief elegantly allows the film to have that much more of an impact. These are characters who react to situations in a flawed and incredibly human manner, often attempting to deal with the situation as it stands in a matter-of-fact way. It enables the scenes in which the reality of the situation becomes too much to bear to be all that more heart-achingly devastating. It is also to the credit of Lonergan that the film is also as funny as it is, with many well-observed moments of hilarity mixed in with the heart-ache. 

The performances on offer here easily match the restraint exhibited by both Lonergan’s screenplay and framing. Lucas Hedges is a brilliant find as the young Patrick, delivering an easy-going charisma that easily makes Pat more than worthy of your sympathy. Michelle Williams only has a few short scenes but she is responsible for delivering one of the most emotionally testing moments of the film, a scene which she and Affleck play to devastating effect. Affleck himself turns in his best performance yet, easily conveying Lee’s complicated nature, making him a consistently captivating individual in even the most mundane moments.

Manchester by the Sea often rejects convention to deliver a rumination on grief that feels more genuine that many films that end up becoming Oscar favourites. It is a masterpiece in the minor key, and while that may sound hyperbolic, it is somewhat undeniable. It is one of the most human stories you can see on screen this awards season so far, standing as one of the finest dramas of recent memory due to its striking restraint.

5 Stars (5 / 5)

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(Photos copyright: K Period Media, Pearl Street Films, The Media Farm, The Affleck/Middleton Project, B Story, Big Indie Pictures, CMP)

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