“Manchester by the Sea” Movie Review


     Directors will often go their entire careers without creating what is deemed a masterpiece, but after a long screenwriting career, which includes an Oscar nomination for 2002’s “Gangs of New York, Kenneth Lonergan has achieved what so many filmmakers continue to strive for with every project.  His new film “Manchester by the Sea” is a powerful tour de force in dramatic characterization that allows his actors to transform into people with real feelings who exhibit raw and unrehearsed life like emotion.  Lonergan’s Oscar worthy script and direction brings out a number of truly excellent performances by the ensemble, particularly with Casey Affleck, who plays Lee Chandler, a broken man whose past has left him in a life of seclusion and regret. 

     Lonergan is primarily exploring the theme of loss and how it effects people’s lives as they move on and attempt to cope with their remaining responsibilities.  Lee is a janitor for several apartment buildings located within a Boston area suburb.  When we first meet him, Lonergan wants us to tag along for a few of his work calls, perhaps to establish the character’s daily routine of mundane and unappreciated tasks.  The story takes place during a cold and wintery time of the year, and Lee finds himself shoveling snow off pathways, unclogging toilets, and dealing with demanding tenants who want their plumbing problems fixed immediately.  But we also notice right away that Lee deals with everyone he comes into contact with in a seemingly emotionless state.  He exhibits nothing remotely close to a personality and often finds himself in his supervisor’s office for what is perceived as rude and unkind behavior.  There’s clearly something wrong, but we don’t know what it is.

     Then Lee receives a phone call from a family friend informing him his brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), is in the hospital having suffered a heart attack.  We learn in a flashback scene of Joe having been diagnosed with heart problems and the severity of the disease likely someday cutting his life short.  When Lee arrives in Manchester, which is some 90 minutes from Boston, he learns from one of his brother’s co-workers, George (C.J. Wilson), that Joe has passed away.  Shortly thereafter, Lee is also told via Joe’s Will that he will be his 16 year old son Patrick’s (Lucas Hedges) guardian, a responsibility he is neither prepared for or mentally able to handle.

     Lee had been in Patrick’s life in the past, going on fishing trips with both him and Joe, but something terrible happened in Lee’s life that has left him permanently damaged and scarred.  In another flashback, we see into Lee’s past where he is still married to his wife, Randi (Michelle Williams), and has three beautiful young children.  Through these scenes, we see a couple who likely married young and is dealing with the realities of parenting and the life changing moments that come with it.  We all cope in different ways, but it seems Lee has chosen to deal with his problems by drinking and partying, a habit that clearly causes strain in his relationship with Randi.  I won’t reveal here where Lee and Randi’s story goes from that point, but the resulting tragedy is not only heartbreaking for the couple, but has serious consequences on their lives moving forward.  Now years later, Lee is being forced to care for a teenager who needs guidance at a time where he has lost his father and has no contact with his estranged mother.

     Many times when we look at our lives and the emotional twists and turns they often take, laughing at the situation seems to be the only way to keep from completely losing it.  Lonergan embraces this concept with nearly all of the characters, but particularly while exploring the relationship between Lee and Patrick as both adjust to a new set of circumstances.  Patrick is surprisingly resilient considering he has lost his father and may have to move to Boston away from his school and friends.  The two banter back and forth on everything from Patrick’s girlfriends staying over night to how cold they are when they accidentally forget where they parked their car.  Patrick seems to cope by depending on his friends as a distraction, whereas Lee is trying to make sense of his new role, trying to determine the right course for Patrick while navigating many of the same coming of age obstacles all teenagers face in dealing with divorce, death, and day to day life.

     “Manchester by the Sea” is one of the best films of 2016.  Lonergan has delivered a film that is devoid of any slick camera movement, instead preferring to utilize a steady frame with the occasional zoom in and out.  This allows the actors to own every scene and has the audience focusing solely on the performances and the impact of the story, which at times packs quite an emotional punch.  Sure, Lonergan has his characters riff on everything from “Star Trek” to the use of birth control, but at each of their cores you always know their is underlying grief causing them to seek ways to ignore the pain they feel daily.  The film will allow you to laugh at times, but the tragic circumstances that has brought each of the characters together is ever present and as heart wrenching as anything I’ve seen this year.  This is powerful storytelling about how people end up when everything in their life is turned upside down in the most unexpected of ways.  There are redeeming qualities to every character on screen, but we also know none of them will ever be the same.  GRADE: A