Blogger’s Note: It is difficult to properly review Manchester by the Sea without some spoilers. If you wish to go into the movie completely fresh, I would suggest waiting until post viewing to read.
Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan knows that sometimes the most effective and emotional moments in film come from hearing what is not said. Sometimes the interactions between characters aren’t most dramatic when everything is laid on the table, but when they can’t find the words to express their feelings. We witness that in his latest picture Manchester by the Sea. This is a subtle tale of grief with some truly fine acting. Most pleasingly, Lonergan doesn’t over do it with subject matter and that would’ve been the easy route to go. The New England residents he writes of are experiencing unimaginable sadness, yet they grieve in their own way that rings authentic.
Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is a Massachusetts janitor who seems to keep to himself. Even the everyday banter of his clients is a chore for him to listen and respond to. His dull existence is interrupted by news that his brother (Kyle Chandler) has died of a heart attack. He returns home to the title town with the task of informing his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) of his father’s death. The mom (Gretchen Mol) is out of the picture – miles away and apparently an unreliable alcoholic. To Lee’s rather unpleasant surprise, he is named guardian to Patrick.
The pic alternates between flashbacks and present day as we see that Lee once had a fun loving relationship with his nephew. We also see his own family existence with wife Randi (Michelle Williams) and three young children. It’s far from perfect but it seems relatively happy. Lee does drink too much and it’s an error on his part that causes their home to burn down. Randi survives. The children do not. With their world turned upside down, the marriage dissolves and Lee relocates.
His return years later finds him alternating between semi-parenting Patrick through his own tragedy and being ambivalent. This is not with long and drawn out passages of dialogue about feelings and death, but through observing both of their journeys as they process their losses. Some of it is done through humor, as Lee navigates how to respond to Patrick’s two girlfriends.
As mentioned, the Big Scene moments that other more heart string tugging screenplays might dwell on are absent here. The camera hangs back when Patrick is delivered the news of his dad’s passing. His mother’s substance abuse problems are handled in a single shot. We don’t see the chaos that ensued with Lee and Randi’s divorce. Most powerfully, the eventual confrontation between them isn’t lengthy, but it packs a gut punch by what isn’t said.
Lonergan makes us care about these people, flaws and all. The actors playing them accentuate it tremendously. This is probably the best performance of Affleck’s career. Hedges is completely believable as the teen dealing with all the drama in his own way. Williams has limited screen time but makes the most of it, especially in the aforementioned scene with Lee.
Manchester by the Sea holds us in its grip as we take in its lovely East Coast scenery. They say New Englanders aren’t the type to be overtly expressive in their emotions and that’s the case here. We may not always hear what they’re thinking, but this script and these performers convey it. And that’s says a lot.
***1/2 (out of four)