Review: Manchester by the Sea

Directed by: Kenneth Lonergan
Written by: Kenneth Lonergan
Starring: Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, Lusa Hedges, Gretchen Mol, Tate Donovan
Released: February 2, 2017
Grade: A

Manchester by the Sea
Kenneth Lonergan is a filmmaker I admire.  His directorial debut, You Can Count On Me (2000), was a beautiful tale of love, friendship and family.  It earned him much praise and an Academy Award nomination for best original screenplay.  The path of his follow up film, Margaret (2011), was not so smooth.  It was shot in 2005 but spent a ridiculous 6 years in the editing room due to “creative differences” with the producers.  For what it’s worth, I still liked the finished product.

Having spent the last few years working on plays, a television mini-series, and a few scripts that didn’t get off the ground, Lonergan is back in the spotlight with Manchester by the Sea.  It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival over a year ago and is now one of the frontrunners for the upcoming Academy Awards.  It’s a film he’ll be remembered for and deservedly so.

Lee Chandler (Affleck) is a self-employed janitor from a small town in Massachusetts.  He’s currently working for 4 separate apartment buildings just to make enough cash to get by.  He lives alone in a tiny basement “studio” with not much in the way of furniture or possessions.  It may sound like a sad, lonely existence but you got a strong sense this is what he wants – to simply switch off from the world around him.

That plan is disrupted when he receives an unexpected phone call.  His older brother, Joe, has passed away due to congestive heart failure.  Lee must return to his childhood home in Manchester-by-the-Sea, a tiny community where everyone knows everyone, and organise the funeral.  He must also help care for Joe’s 16-year-old son, Patrick (Hedges), who is in need of a legal guardian.

This is an exquisitely well-told tale about the way we deal with trauma and loss.  While Lonergan deserves full credit as the writer-director, the original idea for the film came from actors Matt Damon (who serves as one of the producers) and John Krasinski.  He wanted to explore the idea of tragedy and that no matter how hard we try we cannot shut ourselves away and avoid it. 

Casey Affleck could win an Academy Award later this month and it’s easy to see why with his strong performance.  He portrays Lee as an “emotional vacuum”.  Even when he learns of his brother’s passing and has to visit the hospital to take care of a few things, his voice never changes pitch.  His tough exterior is visible but it’s hard to gauge how soft he is on the inside.

That leads into another of the film’s positive attributes – intrigue.  On arriving back in Manchester, there’s a moment when an onlooker whispers “is that THE Lee Chandler?”  It’s clear that Lee has been affected by events from his past but Lonergan’s screenplay is careful in how this is revealed.  Answers are provided via short, powerful, well-timed flashbacks that involve his brother (Chandler) and wife (Williams).

Given the heavy material, the biggest surprise offered by the movie is its comedy.  The 16-year-old Patrick, played brilliantly by newcomer Lucas Hedges (Labor Day), has his own way of dealing with grief that involves several “girlfriends” and getting laid.  He shares some entertaining conversations with Lee as they each try to get a feel for the other.  A highlight is a hilariously awkward exchange where Patrick introduces Lee to a friend’s mother.

I’m not an Academy member (despite my yearnings) but if I had the chance to vote this year for best picture, Manchester by the Sea would be my pick.