Review: “Manchester by the Sea”

5 out of 5 stars.

Usually there’s at least one movie every year that bowls me over with its honest and unflinching character studies, a film that I know I love even as I’m watching it for the first time.  It looks like this year, director Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester by the Sea” is that movie.

The story follows Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), a janitor who works for an apartment complex in Boston.  The opening scenes paint him as a loner who isn’t particularly friendly with anyone, whether it’s the woman whose toilet he’s unclogging or the guys sitting by him at the bar.  He gets a call one day that his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has suddenly died, so he travels to his hometown to take care of things.  One of those things is Joe’s teenage son Patrick (Lucas Hedges); Lee soon finds out that Joe intended for Lee to be Patrick’s guardian, even leaving him extra money to relocate from Boston to Manchester.  Lee outright refuses to be Patrick’s guardian, but we later learn that it is due to more than his loner nature when his tragic past comes to light.

Few other films this year have boasted characters as full-bodied and complex as the ones in “Manchester by the Sea,” as we witness the characters deal with death in their own ways.  Besides Lee, there’s Patrick, whose initial, seemingly cold-hearted reaction to his father’s passing is to hang out with his friends and to invite his girlfriend over to spend the night.  But after visiting the funeral home and learning that Joe’s body can’t be buried until the spring because the ground is too cold and he’ll have to be kept in a freezer in the meantime, Patrick has a breakdown while putting food in their freezer at home.  The event also brings Lee into contact with his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams), who is about to have a baby with her new husband, but still feels connected to Lee, while Patrick reunites with his estranged mother Elise (Gretchen Mol), a former alcoholic who has found religion and turned over a new leaf with her new partner, Rodney (Matthew Broderick).  All of these characters have to deal with what they’ve done in the past when confronted with the events of the present.

Michelle Williams as Lee’s ex-wife Randi

A big part of what makes these characters so compelling are the actors who portray them.  C.J. Wilson steals many a scene as George, Joe’s friend and former partner working on his boat.  Williams appears in the film only briefly, but makes her time count in a heart-breaking performance.  This is Hedges’ first major film role, and he is astounding, on top of having fantastic chemistry with Affleck that makes them feel like a real uncle/nephew pair.  But Affleck deserves all the praise here, giving the performance of his career, a performance that will likely cement his place among the great actors of our generation.  The conflict his character feels (over his brother’s death, over his potential guardianship of his nephew, over his past) is always evident on his face, and he makes the difference between the Lee we see in the present and the Lee we see in flashbacks very clear.  He handles everything, from the witty banter to the dramatic breakdowns, like it’s nothing.

Lonergan’s screenplay is equal parts heart-wrenching drama and gut-busting comedy, the two coming together beautifully to create a tone for the movie that is as complex as its characters.  It manages to find hilarity in every day occurrences, like finding a parked car or being forced to make conversation with someone you don’t know.  It also shows a wisdom and an understanding of the mourning process that few films have grasped better.  There are parts of the film that could easily have become mired in melodrama and been so much less effective, but Lonergan never lets that happen through the careful balance of humor and drama.  “Manchester by the Sea,” with its gorgeous on location cinematography, authentic characters and story, and spot-on performances and direction, comes along and practically shocks you that such a wonderful movie even exists, because it is nothing short of a masterpiece.

Runtime: 137 minutes. Rated R.


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