Manchester by the Sea is a drama written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan. The film tells the story of Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck). Following the sudden and unexpected death of Lee’s older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler), Lee becomes the legal guardian of Patrick, Joe’s son. The story then follows Lee back to his hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts, as he must deal with his new role while balancing issues with his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams) and the North Shore community.
In every single way, Manchester by the Sea is an absolutely and unequivocally perfect movie—and it all starts with its visionary filmmaker, writer/director Kenneth Lonergan. As I wrote when I briefly previewed the film on the Honorable Mentions post of my Fall Preview last August, until Manchester by the Sea, I was completely unfamiliar with Lonergan as a director. However, I did have some understanding of Lonergan as a screenwriter, as he was previously nominated for Best Original Screenplay for penning the dramatically intense and entertainingly sharp script for Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York (2002). It was this fact that originally piqued my interest in the film. Although Gangs of New York was stunningly imaginative in its storytelling, it is in Manchester by the Sea that Lonergan has penned his magnum opus. I will not sugarcoat anything, though—this story is sad, distressing, and emotionally heart-wrenching, and it had me crying throughout. However, Lonergan spectacularly mixes in the perfect dose of humor. In Manchester by the Sea, Lonergan has crafted one of the most comedic melodramas known to cinema—although that sounds like a textbook oxymoron, Lonergan embraces the contradiction and defies all traditional notions of screenwriting principles.
Lonergan’s storytelling techniques in Manchester by the Sea are nothing short of incredibly effective and manifestly felicitous. The story is simple: Lee, a dejected handyman living in a basement apartment in Boston, must return to his hometown following his brother Joe’s death, where he learns that Joe has chosen him to be the legal guardian of Patrick, Joe’s teenage son. We quickly learn that Lee is angst-ridden with the return to his hometown, and Lonergan brilliantly refuses to give the audience any quick answers as to why Lee is so particularly apprehensive about coming back—all that we know is that Lee lives a despondent life due to some family tragedy. Over the course of the film, Lonergan slowly unveils the heartrending truth behind Lee’s downward spiral, impeccably utilizing flashbacks to tell that story. To say anything more about the plot would give away far too much—but I assure you, the truth is more painful than you can imagine, and Lonergan tugs at the audience’s heartstrings relentlessly.
In order for Lonergan to most effectively tell his story, he assembled a cast of performers who far exceeded any expectations I could ever have had. In the lead role, Casey Affleck is superlative as Lee. In the present, Lee is as miserable and melancholy as one could be, but in the flashbacks, he is an upbeat and enthusiastic family man. Lee is truly a tale of two men, and Affleck is better than ever in this divergent portrayal. I have always been a fan of Affleck’s work, especially in Gone Baby Gone and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, the latter of which earned him his first Oscar nomination, but in Manchester by the Sea, Affleck has cemented himself as one of the elites. He is quite deserving of the Oscar he will surely win for Best Actor.
Michelle Williams is also nominated for an Academy Award (in the Best Supporting Actress category), and her performance as Lee’s ex-wife Randi was emotionally driven and vital to the story. Although her screen time comes at a premium, Williams, who has previously been nominated for two Oscars, brings an emotionally packed punch to every scene she is in.
One of the single greatest scenes in the film, which truly captures the pain and sorrow of its plotline, depicts Lee and Randi unintentionally encountering one another in town. Again, to speak about the scene in any more detail would reveal far too much about the story, but trust me when I say that it makes for the textbook tear-jerker. Both actors bring a keen sense of virtuosity to the scene, and it stands out as one of the biggest highlights of the film.
Further, the film features exquisite supporting performances from Kyle Chandler and star-in-the-making Lucas Hedges. Chandler is a seasoned film veteran, and as Lee’s brother Joe, he is superb—each flashback scene benefits greatly from his presence and acting prowess. But Lucas Hedges nearly steals the show as Patrick, Joe’s teenage son. Patrick tries to hide his emotions about his father’s death by focusing on hockey, his rock band, and his two (yes, two) girlfriends. Hedges brings a refreshing sense of innocence to his character, but he does so with spectacular deftness, as if his filmography was busting at the seams with experience. His apt for acting is particularly elucidating in scenes where Patrick is at his most vulnerable—when he finally comes to grips with father’s death, the moment hits you like a ton of bricks, all thanks to Hedges’s passionate commitment to the role. This kid is sure to do big things in the years to come. Manchester by the Sea is rated R for language throughout and some sexual content.
Manchester by the Sea trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gsVoD0pTge0
Academy Award nominations for Manchester by the Sea:
Best Picture (Matt Damon, Kimberly Steward, Chris Moore, Lauren Beck, and Kevin J. Walsh)
Best Director (Kenneth Lonergan)
Best Actor in a Leading Role (Casey Affleck)
Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Lucas Hedges)
Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Michelle Williams)
Best Original Screenplay (Kenneth Lonergan)
Previous movies on the countdown of my Top 10 Films of 2016:
- Hell or High Water
- O.J.: Made in America
- La La Land
- Nocturnal Animals