At times comforting, and at other times darkly amusing, intriguing and heart-wrenching, writer & director Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester by the Sea” is a remarkable film that offers pure authenticity in its drama, letting its simple but rich story rise to become of one 2016’s best films.
“Manchester by the Sea” starts simply, slowly introducing you to Lee Chandler, played by Casey Affleck. Chandler is dealing with day-to-day life as a handyman in Boston when he gets a call about his brother back in Manchester who just passed away. Chandler returns to his old hometown to see family and assist with the circumstances as best he can, when he finds himself tasked with more than he expected with his brother’s son, who’s trying to move forward into adolescence while dealing with the loss of his father and the ongoing absence of an alcoholic mother who left them years before. At the same time, Chandler is wrestling with shadows from his past that have had indelible impacts on his life and spirit.
What has the potential to be a touching but clichéd story of family members strengthening each other through struggle ends up becoming something else. The characters make unexpected decisions and process emotions in different ways, and Chandler especially faces much doubt and hesitation about how to move forward, for reasons which aren’t clear at first. Ever since 2007’s “Gone Baby Gone”, Affleck has become a major acting force, playing parts with investment and gravity. Affleck inhabits the role of Chandler remarkably well, giving a performance that can be viewed many times over to gleam the small details hidden in its simplicity.
The entire movie follows this style, with every character, situation and the story itself coming across as straightforward yet full of shades of complexity upon reflection. It starts off vague, leaving us wanting to know more about what the context to this situation is and why certain characters are the way they are. As the story goes forward more details are slowly revealed, and we start to get a full picture of what’s happening, how it’s happened, and why characters like Lee Chandler seem so broken and confused about this difficult situation.
Affleck gives an Oscar-worthy performance as the complex and wounded Chandler, as does Michelle Williams as his ex-wife Randi. These performances give us a glimpse into people having dealt with heavy emotional burdens and messy life circumstances. They change enormously throughout the chronological events of the film, yet every single character in this film feels real. The cast and their world begin to feel tangible as everything about them are sold so beautifully as a living, breathing collection of flawed human beings struggling through life.
This film is refreshing, investing and full of heart. With characters you come to intimately know and a deceptively simple narrative style, Kenneth Lonergan, Casey Affleck and company tell a story as subtle, compelling, heartbreaking and unexpected as life itself often is.
+ Multiple Oscar-worthy performances that capture a rare authenticity
+ Compelling story told with truth and nuance
+ Fleshed out, lived-in world of context and consequence
– Not really a negative, but the subtlety and tragedy may not be for everybody
Seth Zielinski is a video producer and critic at The Geekiverse, who tries to watch artful and important works of cinema in between repeated viewings of “Boggy Creek II” and “Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie”.
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