Manchester by the Sea Review

Posted: December 21, 2016 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in PG Cooper's Movie Reviews

manchesterWritten by Daniel Simpson

They say less is more, but I’m not sure people really believe that when it comes to cinema. For better or worse, the films which are celebrated tend to be the more showy pieces, the ones with the bold styles, long tracking shots, and the grandiose performances. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that style of filmmaking as there is definitely a place for it, but there is also a place for more subtle explorations of the human condition. A lot of these films get rave reviews, but they also have trouble breaking through to a wider audience or receiving significant awards intention. It is for this reason that much of Richard Linklater’s work has been overlooked by the greater film community despite many of these films being brilliant and possessing a passionate audience. There’s a lot of insight that can be gleamed from these smaller scale works. We saw that earlier this year with Barry Jenkins’ astute character study Moonlight and we’re seeing it now with Kenneth Lonergan’s excellent new drama Manchester by the Sea.

Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is a janitor living a solitary life in Quincy, Massachusetts. His life consists mostly of work and basic routine, he doesn’t seem to have any close friends, and he lives alone in a one-bedroom apartment. One morning, Lee receives a call informing him that his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) is in the hospital due to his severe heart condition. Lee goes to the hospital as fast as possible, but by the time he arrives Joe has already passed away. With Joe’s ex-wife’s (Gretchen Moll) location unknown, Joe’s son Patrick (Lucas Hedges) without a guardian. Lee is shocked to learn that Joe named Lee as Patrick’s guardian in his will. This is distressing as it will involve Lee moving back to his hometown (the strangely named) Manchester-by-the-Sea, where his ex-wife and lots of painful memories reside. The bulk of the narrative comes to focus on how Lee and Patrick process their grief while also slowly rebuilding their relationship to each other.

The overriding theme of Manchester by the Sea is that of grief. All of the main characters in the film are experiencing a form of less and Lonergan is particularly interested in comparing and contrasting the ways in which Lee and Patrick handle this loss. Both characters internalize their sorrow, but in different ways. Patrick displays an outward persona of coolness and generally seems stable. However beneath that layer are swirling anxieties and confusion. Comparatively, Lee is very quiet and distant. He is able to supress the sorrow which exists within him but he also makes no effort to try and mask his feelings with a charismatic front. The difference in expression of grief can be attributed to a lot of things, including the differing personalities and the fact that Lee is obviously a lot older, but the most significant difference is that Joe’s death is not the only tragedy Lee is recovering from. Without going into spoilers, there is something which occurred in Lee’s past which still haunts him and how Lee comes to reckon with this really informs much of the narrative. Watching both characters struggle with their feelings is engrossing, and furthermore, it’s even more compelling to see the two try to reach each other while both coming from very different perspectives.

Movies that deal so overtly with a theme like grief are tricky because there are a plethora of ways in which they can go wrong. Messages can be hackneyed and clichéd, the filmmakers might plunge too deep into morose themes, or the film can become too schmaltzy and sentimental. All of these potential pitfalls essentially point to the same flaw: a lack of reality. Thankfully, Lonergan’s script and direction is wonderfully well-realized. The man elegantly eschews all of the more unfortunate paths the film could have gone down and instead creates a very real portrait of fascinating characters trying to make sense of their world. Part of that reality stems from the film’s surprisingly humorous side. While the drama is certainly palpable, there is also a lot of wit and some moments which are genuinely laugh out loud funny. I wouldn’t call the film a full-on comedy, I wouldn’t even call it a “dramedy” of the Alexander Payne variety, but there certainly is a humorous streak to be found. All of this humour stems from natural human interaction and it’s weaved with the dramatic elements extraordinarily well. Within a single scene you might find yourself pushed near tears but also laughing at something else. In its own way, this is actually a more realistic approach. The fact is real life is not sorted into distinct categories of happy and sad. There is a lot of crossover between emotions and that is expressed in Manchester by the Sea.

Perhaps the most buzzed about element of Manchester by the Sea are the performances which indeed live up to their reputation. At the center of the film is Casey Affleck, an actor I’ve been championing since I saw The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and his work here might just eclipse that brilliant performance. Affleck embodies Lee’s quiet nature well and also hints at the depth of sorrow that lies just beneath the surface. There are also a handful of scenes which call for Lee’s defenses to be dropped and Affleck delivers the emotional pathos. It’s an incredibly powerful performance, one which resonates deeply even in its quietest moments. Young Lucas Hedges also does remarkable work and navigates between sadness and charm very well. The two also make for a very compelling pair and indeed simply watching the two grow together is one of the films great charms. Then there’s Michelle Williams, who isn’t in the film as much as the marketing would lead you to believe but nonetheless delivers a really stirring and complex performance. It’s a very emotionally demanding part that requires a lot of raw emotion and Williams delivers flawlessly. Her scenes are in fact among the film’s most crucial moments. The rest of the cast is made up mostly of lesser known actors who do a great job building a sense of a real community. Even the smallest characters feel like real people.

Circling back to my first paragraph, Lonergan’s work as a director is subtle, but it’s also incredibly sharp. He makes great use of the sea-side location and he also keeps scenes visually interesting without ever letting his hand be felt. Perhaps most importantly, Lonergan knows when to allow a moment to simply play out and he also employs silence to great effect. The film as a whole is a pretty significant achievement, one that deserves to be recognized. It’s not easy to create a film which feels so real and layered and it also isn’t easy to explore themes like grief in a way which feels profound and yet still humble and honest. Add to that the wonderfully well-realized characters and performances and you’ve got yourself a real winner. I could have sat and watched these lives unfold for days.


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