Sometimes it seems that a great movie can just pop up out of nowhere. I shouldn’t really be saying that about this one considering this is the time of year when a lot of the great movies come out and also the fact that this particular film was getting a fair amount of buzz. When I first heard of Manchester by the Sea I was determined to see it because of the praise that was being given to Casey Affleck, one of my favorite actors. I went to the movie not knowing too much of what the plot was or who was involved with the production, but looking back on it, Manchester by the Sea is one of the stand out films of the year and one of the most honest and down to earth stories I’ve seen in a long time.
Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is a janitor for an apartment complex in Quincy, Massachusetts who is known by the tenants for his often volatile personality. One day he gets a call to let him know that his brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), has died which forces Lee to return to his home town of Manchester-by-the-Sea for the services and to also look after Joe’s son Patrick (Lucas Hedges). This return to Manchester opens some old, deep wounds that Lee has been running from for years that are only made worse when he finally runs into his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams), and the two begin talking for the first time since a tragedy forcefully pulled them apart. As Lee starts to deal with his past and the problems he is presently facing, a bomb is dropped on him when it’s revealed that he is now the legal guardian of Patrick, a responsibility that seems so far from what Lee is capable of.
There are so many really impressive things about Manchester by the Sea from the way the story is told to the actors responsible for bringing all of the poignant scenes Kenneth Lonergan created to life. In terms of story, it’s simply beautiful and it’s so beautiful because it’s so real. There’s nothing glamorized in this movie and the drama feels like it could happen to anyone including yourself. The idea of having a death in the family, especially someone as close as Lee and Joe were, is a very upsetting thing to think about but the story never becomes so upsetting that all the hope is lost. People deal with loss in different ways including lashing out at other people or hiding behind a sense of humor. This movie explores all of these ways and it surprisingly made me laugh more than a few times. In one scene, Lee and Patrick are having an argument while they walk up and down a street looking for where they parked the car. This frustration of forgetting where they parked adds frustration to their argument and fuels the fire. This is a great scene that perfectly illustrates the real scenarios that are relatable to the viewer.
Part of what made this movie connect with me so much actually had a lot to do with the location. Manchester is shot like it could be Anytown, USA. There’s something really familiar about the businesses and the homes that just put me at ease with where I was. Like I said, there’s nothing glamorous in Manchester by the Sea and that includes the way the settings and people are shot. None of the characters look like movie stars, but are made up to look like they could be anyone’s next door neighbor. It reminded me a lot of British realism in the sense that all of this could be happening next door from you and you may not even know. Lonergan has truly crafted a story that can speak to anyone, no matter how cold and jaded you’ve become.
On to the reason why I really wanted to see this movie. Affleck has been getting a lot of attention for his performance in this movie and he deserves every bit of it. He gives an understated and honest performance, but he also just fits right into the location like he’s been there all his life. There are some scenes that require him to really put energy into the drama, but there are so many great scenes that are much quieter and you can see just by his face that the gears in his head are turning and turning fast. Lucas Hedges also gives a surprisingly great performance as Patrick, and the two leads work great with each other. It’s a very real relationship they have and the conversations we get to listen to happen so naturally. Finally, Michelle Williams is always one to give a strong performance and her tragic character in this film is clearly and accurately brought to life.
Manchester by the Sea snuck up on my out of nowhere and has become one of the strongest and most memorable movies of 2016. It’s a pretty long movie and it can be argued that not much happens in the slow burn of a storyline, but I’d argue that. This is a very deep, complex, and emotional story that’s acted by some of the best in the business and realistically brought to life by writer and director Kenneth Lonergan. It doesn’t so much succeed as a drama as it does in showing life and humanity in the most organic way you can see on film. Manchester by the Sea is required viewing.
Final Grade: A