Review: ‘MANCHESTER BY THE SEA’s’ Difficult Realities

Casey Affleck finally escapes big brother Ben’s shadow in Kenneth Lonergan’s exceptional drama.

As shown through enough career-defining performances in the likes of Gone Baby Gone, The Assassination of Jesse James…­, and Gerry to make his more famous brother’s head spin, Casey Affleck shines best when given screen time to simply think. Reflection and contemplation, quiet rage and grief take root in Affleck’s Lee — the main character in one of the year’s best, Manchester by the Sea. Written and directed by character savant Kenneth Lonergran, Sea showcases the best of its cast, the truth of its characters, and the profound impact of life’s biggest decisions.

Lee Chandler spends most of his time existing — not exactly living­ — in Boston. A transplant from seaside Manchester, Lee works as a janitor for several apartment buildings and toils away in a haze of plumbing problems, cheap beer, and the warm artificial light from his television. When a phone call sends him back to his past haunt, Lee is tasked with the care of his sixteen-year-old nephew and thrust back into a past he has carefully avoided for years. To give more away about Sea’s plot would be a tragic mistake, as its secrets should unfold to the viewer in real time. Populated with all Lonergan’s favorite tropes (loss, strained relationships, familial pain, and a Matthew Broderick cameo), Sea is equal parts character drama and cathartic escapism.

I’m far from the minority to praise Affleck this year; his portrayal of the multifaceted Lee is a revelation. This is a real man, not solely defined by the heart-wrenching mistakes of his past as would easily befall a typical protagonist. The plot unfolds in two different timelines, and the difference in Lee is both surface and far below. Affleck carries Lee’s grief physically and in his language to those that orbit him; we always know where we are in the story by Affleck’s intonation, how high he chooses to hold his head, and the space he gives other characters.

Further, Kyle Chandler as big brother Joe embodies a more paternal figure, but with his own struggles bubbling below his compassionate exterior. Joe is given little screen time to fully express his plight, but Chandler allows him to breathe in the moments he has, and provides the audience a window into a complete life lived mostly off screen. Michelle Williams and Gretchen Mol are each given strong scenes in which to showcase their various talents; Matthew Broderick, well…he’s…in it. But it’s Lucas Hedges as young Patrick Chandler (Lee’s nephew), the next generation, that completes the ensemble and elevates the cast far beyond a good film, catapulting it to great. Hedges is the heart of Manchester By the Sea, perfectly modulating between emotiveness and restraint; Patrick is unpredictable and raw in his grief but honest and still very naïve. Refreshingly guileless, Hedges makes choices far beyond his years and yet, still very youthful.

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Lesley Barber’s score is both unexpected and meaningful. The music drives the emotion and plot forward without crossing into manipulation. A beautiful statement when noticed and a lovely accompaniment when overlooked, the notes seem to exist in the air, a character in themselves. As does the Norman Rockwell-esque cinematography by Jody Lee Lipes. Framed with carefully crafted backgrounds and plotted New England staples, Manchester is both a beautiful, seaside home and an overwhelming place where ghosts of the past dwell. When Lee is uncomfortable, we’re uncomfortable both by the score and the framing, and when he is free, the setting opens up. Common themes of water, glass, fire, and snow become important as the plot unfolds, but we notice them as characters early on, paying attention even when we’re not sure why.

Kenneth Lonergan has made a career on the exploration of human connection in films like You Can Count on Me, Gangs of New York (the screenplay, obviously), and Margaret. Every person in Lee’s world, including himself, has had some sort of wrench thrown at their life plan. Whether it’s a small mistake added to loss, a flaw in DNA giving someone a shortened story, or having the carefully crafted popularity of youth thrust into the horrors of adulthood, no one in Sea is safe from fate. The film represents a very simple idea, expanded into a masterful treatise on change and seeing the beauty in the small gifts we leave for those we love.

Lonergan achieves greatness in the quiet restraint so often overlooked by the wide audiences in need of simple gratification. He also proves the total faith he has in his cast to give even the most peripheral of characters a full life with such economy of dialogue. Lonergan directs Sea with fine strokes of the brush: this is not everyone’s story of loss; this is one town, in one era. Sea is a movie rooted in reality, rallying against melodrama in ways refreshing and achingly lovely. The tears are there, and they will come, but believe me when I tell you it is not because of some manufactured idea of life lived in stories — this is life. And life can be equal parts tragedy and hope.

Manchester By the Sea is not an easy film, any easier than it is to review without revealing its secrets. It’s unassuming in its restraint, and doesn’t condescend to its audiences’ s satisfaction, or need of a third-act sunset. Truly perfect in its study of imperfections, Sea is worthy of your time. Bring Kleenex and a bottle of Jameson. You’ll need both.

Grade: A

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