Title: Manchester by the Sea
MPAA: Rated R for language throughout and some sexual content
Director: Kenneth Lonergan
Starring: Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, Kyle Chandler, Michelle Williams
Synopsis: Lee Chandler (Affleck), a brooding, irritable handyman for a Boston apartment block, gets horrible news that his brother’s heart has given out suddenly, and he’s been named guardian to his 16-year-old nephew (Hedges). As if losing his only sibling and doubts about raising a teenager weren’t enough, his return to the past re-opens an unspeakable tragedy.
Manchester by the Sea is written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan and mainly takes place in the small city of Manchester, New Hampshire, despite having other scenes that take place in Boston. Lonergan really breathes that small town feel into this film. Kind of similar to another film I loved this year, Hell or High Water, Lonergan does a great job of exposing its setting almost like you have visited there yourself. I really felt emerged into the location. Almost every character felt like a real person, not an actor. They all had the northern accents and even talked like they have been living there their whole lives.
Manchester by the Sea was first released at the Sundance Film Festival early in the year, and was a huge hit at the festival. Most critics named the film as the best they saw or at least one of the best. Eventually Amazon Studios (get used to that name in the movie business now) and Lonergan decided to give it an end-of-the-year release date to compete for awards season. The film indeed has been given a lot of Oscar buzz and most certainly should be nominated for multiple awards. The only question is for what? After watching this film, I can tell you that the movie should be nominated for acting, writing, directing, musical score, and even best picture. It’s that good. Let me talk about quite possibly my favorite thing about the film: the writing.
Lonergan, who is a more experienced screen-writer than director, really wrote a phenomenal screenplay for this film. The film isn’t based on a true-story, or adapted from a book, but it feels so real. Running at 132 minutes long, Manchester moves at a slow pace, but never drags. There isn’t one scene or sequence of scenes that made me look at the time or wonder when the film would get good again. Lonergan does a fantastic job of slowly building the story, to where the film continues to reveal more and more about the characters. With Affleck’s character, we as an audience find out more about his tragic past and the things that led up to it, and the events that took place afterwards. This is a great character who has multiple layers and a lot of baggage. He could have easily been a character who we despised, but Affleck really allows the audience to feel for him and even root for him throughout the film. He gives a great performance, but I’ll get to that more in a little bit. Lonergan’s story structure for the film is very unique, and does not have a standard three-act structure that moves chronologically. It is a non-linear format, that goes back and forth between Lee Chandler’s past and the present. We see scenes with his brother, before his death, and scenes afterwards where he is forced to take care of his nephew. What has happened in the past with these characters is just as interesting as what his going on in the present which is why it works so well. A film this year that used a similar story structure was Sully, but I felt like it didn’t work, because the past of Sully wasn’t nearly as interesting as what was going on in the present. This is certainly not the case with Manchester by the Sea. Now, let me dive into my next favorite aspect of the film: the acting.
All year, Casey Affleck has been getting Oscar buzz for his performance in this film, so this was something I was really looking forward to seeing for myself. I can now say that he does give a great performance, but it was an acting performance that really surprised me. Affleck is very subtle in this film. As I mentioned before, his character has a dark past, but his character is very withdrawn and suppressed. I think this is very realistic for someone who has gone through as much as he did. Affleck isn’t going for the Oscar in this role which is something I respected. I can tell a lot of times in Oscar-nominated movies, that some actors just give it their all and even overact to stand out and get recognition. Affleck is very reserved in this film. Even in the quiet scenes, just by looking at his eyes that tells me everything his character has gone through. But it doesn’t take away from his performance one bit. He is still very captivating and convincing in his role. No question, the best performance I’ve seen from him to date. The supporting cast is very strong with great performances from veteran actors like Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, and even Matthew Broderick makes a cameo, but the one person I would like to discuss is Lucas Hedges, who plays the 16-year old nephew to Lee Chandler. For the most part, a complete unknown, but boy is he gonna be big. His performance is so good in this movie, and I will go as far as to say just as good as Affleck’s performance. The best scenes in this film are when these two characters are together. These are two characters who have been pretty much forced upon each other after the unfortunate incident, but their relationship is the heart and soul of the film. This speaks to how well the writing is as well, but Hedges’ character, Patrick, is so realistic to a 16-year old boy. Pretty much every action he makes and every line he says is so true of a boy of his age, and really reminds me of when I was that age. To see these two flawed characters bounce off one another really makes some of the best scenes in the film and is worth watching just for their interactions alone.
Now, with all that being said, I wouldn’t label this film as a “masterpiece” or “instant classic” like a lot of people are saying. I don’t want anyone’s expectations to be too high for this film. It is an extremely well-made drama with great acting, writing, etc., but I won’t say it is the best movie I’ve seen this year. There are some really good scenes, but nothing I will probably remember for years to come. This film is very shallow, whereas on the surface, what you see is what you get. There isn’t any hidden meanings or use of symbolism in Lonergan’s directing. What he’s most focused on is creating a realistic story with relatable characters, and that’s exactly what he did. Also the ending kind of bugged me and felt very abrupt, but maybe after a second viewing I will learn to like it more.
Manchester by the Sea is an exceptional drama that, despite its slow pace and low-budget, really speaks true to its story and characters. The characters are very likable and the story is very drawn out. There are scenes that will make you laugh, but there are also scenes that will make you cry. It has a good balance of comedy and drama that doesn’t feel too dramatic or too funny. That was a problem I had withThe Light Between Oceans, where the film was too overwhelming in its drama. Manchester is a film that can really speak to someone, but never felt too forced which is something I really respected. Because of the exceptional acting and writing, Manchester by the Sea is a film that never drags and feels very real, almost like an accidental documentary. As a director, Lonergan really took a backseat and let the actors and their characters become the center focus. He gave them room to breathe, and in return, gave us incredible performances with characters that anyone can relate to and root for. The characters are all very realistic, well written and fleshed out. My only complaint with this film is that I came in with maybe too much expectations and still don’t see this as a classic like Good Will Hunting has become for example. It’s still an exceptional film nonetheless, and should get plenty of attention toward award seasons. My grade for this film is: