Wait, this isn’t about the city in England? In Quincy, Massachusetts lives Lee Russell (Casey Affleck). He works as a janitor, bringing little attention to himself. Once a fairly friendly and upbeat individual, Lee has become extremely reserved, as a result of a tragedy that has shaken him to his core.
Said tragedy was so affecting that he had to move out of Manchester by the Sea just to distance himself from the situation. However, he’s forced to come back because his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler), passes away suddenly. This leaves Joe’s son (and Lee’s obvious nephew), Patrick (Lucas Hedges) without a guardian. Unbeknownst to Lee until he picks up the will left behind, he finds that he’s been entrusted to take care of Patrick. As reluctant to the idea as he is, this may just be the best thing that could happen to him.
Manchester by the Sea, for yours truly, was a tough movie to get a feel for going off of its trailer. Two stories? One story? Bit of a comedy? Coming of age? Well, it is a tad bit of all of that to varying degrees. But those degrees add up rather nicely. By the end of it all, Manchester by the Sea is a rewarding viewing experience.
Director Kenneth Lonergan (Margaret) essentially tells a tale of the five stages of grief in denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Like the Kübler-Ross model, not all five stages are explicitly shown, or chronological, or necessarily experienced, but many are present at least in one way, shape, or implicit form. For a while in the beginning, Manchester by the Sea does feel a little tonally off, one minute both light and then the next seemingly heavy.
But the blend does get stronger as its runtime, though a little lengthy at 2:17, goes on. Lonergan incorporates flashbacks to give much of the film its emotional gravitas. By its midpoint, context is given as to why Lee Russell is as he is, and the flashbacks here rarely break up the flow of the present. It’s a better usage for drawing emotion, than say, starting the feature with why Lee is so distant which may have come off as forced. The moments that stand out the most in Manchester by the Sea may be those in which nothing is heard, aside from a musical piece composed by Lesley Barber or a licensed piece of music. For as good as the dialogue is, a picture—or in this case, a frame—is worth a thousands words.
Manchester by the Sea is buoyed by two supporting performances in Michelle Williams (hardly present but makes her presence felt when present), and Lucas Hedges, much more than teen angst. His chemistry with Casey Affleck is warm and compelling, and not all gloom. Some of the best parts of the film are ones that inject a small bit of humor along with seriousness, and these scenes in the 2nd half simply make the movie feel real.
But make no mistake, Manchester by the Sea is anchored by a career-best Casey Affleck. Watching Affleck early on is somewhat underwhelming…until I realized that I was looking for this “in-your-face” performance from him instead of just watching it. He plays broken and defeated so well, and it makes the small victories he eventually gains all the more rewarding as a viewer. His eventual acceptance in regards to his past and what his future should include punctuates a strong ending written by Lonergan. The ending works great because it isn’t overly sappy, nor completely downtrodden. There are things that can’t be undone, and we all live with regrets, but these regrets shouldn’t always weigh us down.
In the sea of pure major awards contenders, Manchester by the Sea makes itself noticeable as one of the better ones. Anchors aweigh.
Photo credits go to Imdb.com, usatoday.com, and hollywoodreporter.com.
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