Just like with Moonlight, I saw this movie over a month ago but am only reviewing it now due to time constraints. Nonetheless, like Moonlight, Manchester by the Sea has remained in my memory not as much with the haunting imagery, beautiful music, and perfect composition of Moonlight, but thanks to equally-stellar acting, fully-drawn characters, and an excellent script by writer-director Kenneth Lonergan. Much like with Moonlight, I had never heard of the writer-director until this film jumped wholeheartedly into the spotlight after premiering at the Sundance Film Festival in January. Now having arrived in many local theaters after a November 18th limited release, I am fortunate enough to say that it is a grueling experience to watch but a wholly rewarding one that surprised me with its humor and its humanity.
The film follows Lee Chandler, played by Casey Affleck, a janitor living in Quincy, Massachusetts living an aimless life, getting drunk and into fights. His violent and somewhat brutish existence makes more sense as the film draws on. Lee’s life is filled with dealing with less-than-lovable clients until one day he receives a call informing him that his brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), has passed due to a heart condition. Lee returns to his hometown in Manchester-by-the-Sea to tell Joe’s son Patrick (Lucas Hedges), and to help coordinate and plan for the eventual funeral and burial. What Lee doesn’t anticipate is that Joe’s will states that Lee is to become Patrick’s legal guardian, and that his return to Manchester is met with a mix of tepid welcomes from old friends and scornful looks and responses from those connected to Lee’s past. Perhaps most harrowing is that Lee is forced to interact with his distant ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams).
The resulting mix of melodrama and dark, real humor creates the pathos of the film in a grounded and totally believable way. Interspersed with scenes of Lee struggling to find a job with local fishing merchants are scenes between Lee and Patrick where the latter discusses the struggles of having two unwitting girlfriends and playing in a band. The interactions between Patrick and Lee are among the finest acting in the film and the most necessary and welcome exchanges for these reasons. The film’s greatest success comes when it is able to imitate the real-world’s mixture of humor and drama in a way that makes every scene on screen feel necessary. Even at times when the film flashes backward in time without warning, the course of the story and noticeable changes in the characters make them easily recognizable if not necessary. Lonergan handily delivers as writer-director for these reasons.
Where Lonergan is also vastly deserving of praise is for the strength of the acting. While it is always welcome to see talents like Daniel Day-Lewis or Denzel Washington deliver their latest with big and boisterous personality, it is also always welcome to see the big screen welcoming more subtle and internal performances like in Manchester. Affleck here does the best work I have seen from him, and the same can be said for Williams. They both deserve all of the praise and awards buzz that they’ve acquired thus far. The performance that truly stands out to me is Lucas Hedges as Patrick. His character manages to combine the somewhat carefree and foolhardy nature of his youth, the real drama that has resulted from his conflicting situation with his uncle, and the real grief and anxiety that comes with mourning a loved one. His character is perhaps the most fully-formed of all of those on screen, which is certainly saying something. In addition to this his arc is the most palpable of the film as he grows up in many ways before the audience’s eyes. It would be a shame to see him not be nominated for his work.
Following from what I was saying about the grief and anxiety of losing a loved-one, that is what the film perhaps deals with best thematically. At its core Manchester is about the process and the struggle of getting over the loss of a loved one, whether in the distant or very near past. For Lee the loss of his brother brings back old memories that have never gone away and for Patrick they kindle new emotions that only his distant uncle can help him overcome. In addition to the excellence mentioned above, the film mixes in the music of Lesley Barber as well as the cinematography of Jody Lee Lipes. I feel that both of their work is worth commending here as Barber’s music helps create a distinct tone for the setting in Manchester that is at once both melancholy and hopeful. Lipes’ work as DP here is naturalistic and helps the film to shirk any of the unnecessary external elements that might have plagued a lesser film. What is left is simple, yet brilliant.