Movie Review: Manchester by the Sea
Directed by: Kenneth Lonergan
Starring: Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, Michelle Williams
Kenneth Lonergan doesn’t make movies very often, so when he’s got one coming out it’s cause for celebration. Those unfamiliar with his work, or who only know about his troubled production history with the eventually-released-in-2011 Margaret, might find this confusing. Anyone who’s seen You Can Count on Me, without question one of my favorite indie films of last decade, will be more than willing to believe the hype. While his movies don’t sound all that exciting on paper, the truth is that what makes Lonergan an extraordinary director is his power to capture the minutiae of everyday life—down to the smallest details that often go unobserved in film. There are a million movies out there exactly like Manchester by the Sea, and at the same time there are none. If you’re a Lonergan fan but found the “uplifting indie drama” vibes of the trailer a bit on the repellent side, your worries are in vain.
This advice is quadrupled if the biggest problem you had with the commercials was the “uplifting” factor.
A pretty poster, a bit of clever cherry-picking in the trailer room, and generic movie commercial music might be able to disguise it, but Manchester by the Sea is definitely not the sort of amiable indie flick you might take your parents to. It’s two and a quarter hours of beautifully wrought heartbreak. Our protagonist endures trauma that would break nearly anyone, depicted in such a bleak manner that a subset of the population wooed by its awards buzz will probably find too much to bear. It’s downright frigid compared to the warmth of You Can Count on Me, and I haven’t seen a great many American independent films with the same focus on utter emotional desolation. (Come to think of it, I’m pretty sure the only foreign films I’ve seen post-1990 with the same unrelenting focus on a character’s bleak prospects were directed by the Dardenne Brothers.) Does it sound like a slog now? Well, it’s not—despite all of the pain, there is a warm current of humor underneath the majority of the film. One of its most wrenching moments is followed up almost immediately with a very quietly-played bit of visual humor that is quintessential Lonergan, and which could very plausibly have happened in a real life situation. The humor isn’t mocking or mean-spirited and tasteless, it’s just intertwined with all the sadness in a way that makes both elements more palatable than either one would’ve been on its own. It arises from the details of everyday life—ever been to an extraordinarily awkward dinner with a relative you haven’t seen in forever, or forgot to turn your phone off during a funeral?
Casey Affleck is on screen for the majority of the film, and he owns it. If you for some reason needed a reminder of which Affleck brother was the better actor, look no further. I’ve known he could play a good miserable sad sack since the days of the mostly-forgotten Lonesome Jim, but this? This is a revelation. Lee Chandler is a character who (excepting flashbacks) has an emotional range that could be bested by a particularly lively bowl of Jell-O, but somehow this man who is mostly dead inside is one of the most fully alive characters of 2016 cinema. Rarely are we reminded that this is Gigli’s younger brother giving a performance. It helps that he's got some great supporting performances alongside him, of course. Newcomer Lucas Hedges takes a character who could easily be one-note and turns him into the most realistic teenage boy in recent film memory, a boy who might be seeming to hold it together but isn't much better off than his uncle. And while Michelle Williams’ character isn't in that many scenes, she sells each one that she's in so damn well, with such nuanced pain (and a little bit of showiness towards the end that never feels fake) that I wouldn't be surprised if the Supporting Actress Oscar is hers already. These actors and the majority of the other big-names in the cast (though they're in smaller parts) are so compelling that it makes the movie’s less-talented minor players (namely the children) easier to bear.
Taking its seemingly innocent poster imagery from one of its most moving scenes (good luck looking at it the same way ever again), Manchester by the Sea is a truly “adult” movie in that it deals with real issues in a wholly realistic way. We get a few thousand “adult is forced to care for a child after their parent(s) dies” movie every year, but none show the reality of what an arrangement might entail or make the circumstances of their characters quite so bleak. Instead of drawing its powers from artifice and tried-and-true Hollywood storytelling beats, it makes a lasting impression by putting its characters in their own emotional hell and allowing them to help each other find at least a little emotional peace. You'll probably need a day or two to recover from this one, but it's well worth it. If any movie is finally going to put Kenneth Lonergan’s name on the tongues of all film lovers, this is it.
Score: ****½ out of 5 stars.