Manchester by the Sea, a film getting a lot of early Oscar buzz, focuses on family dysfunction and grief in a season that often dwells on the warm-fuzzies. In doing so, however, it takes the characters and the audience on an ultimately life-affirming journey.
In Manchester by the Sea, after his brother Joe’s (Kyle Chandler) sudden death, Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) discovers that he was left guardianship of his 16-year-old nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). While arranging Joe’s funeral and figuring out what to do about the terms of his will, Lee has to move back to Manchester, the small Massachusetts town he used to call home. On the surface, it would seem like a no-brainer for Lee to move permanently back home from Boston, where he lives in a single room and works as the handyman for four aging apartment buildings. Being in Manchester, however, forces Lee to face past mistakes and tragedies that he moved to Boston to get away from. Being in close proximity to his ex-wife, Randi (Michelle Williams), brings back complicated feelings of guilt, grief, and love that compound Lee’s grief over Joe. Through the use of flashbacks, Manchester by the Sea creates a complicated portrait of a family through the personal tragedies and demons of Joe, Lee and Patrick.
One of the strengths of Manchester by the Sea is the way that the film revels and finds the comedy in mundane moments in life. The opening act focuses on the conversations and conflicts Lee overhears in his job as a handyman because the tenants mostly ignore his presence or are overly-familiar with him. Similarly, several of the flashbacks use seemingly unimportant family moments to convey important information about key relationships. Through this dynamic, the film mostly crawls along but resonates deeply with the emotions of the characters.
The score by Lesley Barber layers dramatic instrumental music over emotional scenes. As the actions take place at a slowed-down pace and the music takes the place of dialogue, the emphasis of character portrait over plot shines through. In these moments the film is at its artiest and usually its most moving. The style is a creative choice that could have come across as pretentious had the overall style of the film not been otherwise so low-key and the subject matter so intense.
The actors do a wonderful job of bringing the complicated emotions of the characters to life with both intensity and nuance. Casey Affleck has to carry most of the plot and he does so compellingly. He and Lucas Hedges have great chemistry together and I was impressed by the young actor’s ability to hold his own in some of the more dramatic scenes. I think Kyle Chandler has a strong preference for films in which his character appears for 30 minutes or less. Even still, as the moral center of the film, he makes Joe’s presence carry a lot of weight. Michelle Williams similarly makes her character’s limited screentime really matter. In general, the film brings together a community of characters including Patrick’s mother, Elise (Gretchen Mol), two girlfriends, Silvie (Kara Hayward) and Sandy (Anna Baryshnikov), and family friend George (C.J. Wilson). Together the ensemble plays the community with a lot of unspoken history that helps bring a lot of depth to the story. The women in the film get short-shrift in the narrative, portrayed mostly through the memories of the men, but the actors who play them give the characters weight and personality.
Manchester by the Sea is like a poem. It addresses many issues obliquely, using impressions and snapshots rather than exposition. It is a beautiful film that sometimes wanders too much and sometimes is deeply dissatisfying. I rate it 3.5/5 stars.
Manchester by the Sea was written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan. It runs 137 minutes and is rated R for language throughout and some sexual content.
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