Movies like this don’t come around often. Manchester by the Sea is a movie that succeeds against its own ad campaign and word of mouth. If you’ve heard anything at all about the film, or seen any trailers, you’re probably expecting a brooding, languid experience full of emotional intensity and dark themes. But that’s not what makes this movie such a joy to watch, nor is it the reason for its acclaim. No, Manchester by the Sea is a surprisingly joyful film. It’s full of life, and heart, and earns all of its praise through extraordinary characters and an impeccable script.
Manchester by the Sea is about Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), a loner forced to take care of his nephew (Lucas Hedges) after the death of his brother, Joe. Lee doesn’t want the responsibility because of deeper issues that make it hard for him to face the idea of a family. The movie follows Lee, and his nephew Patrick, as they figure out what to do following the tragedy. Patrick wants to stay in his school, where he has friends, hockey practice, and two girlfriends, while Lee wants to get back to his life as a janitor. There’s no moral lesson, no good guys or bad guys. That’s it. That’s the whole movie. And it’s completely captivating.
“There’s nothing there.”
Manchester by the Sea doesn’t reinvent the wheel – it’s merely a solid film with great writing and terrific performances. Casey Affleck’s acting is understated and controlled, and will be the talk of the upcoming awards season. However, it isn’t showy at all. You get the sense throughout that he, like most of the actors, isn’t acting at all. The performances are all natural, the reactions are all genuine. This is a remarkable film in the sense that nobody is trying to show they can act – they’re just doing it. The director isn’t showing off that he can direct, the cinematographer isn’t showing off his skills, and the actors aren’t grandstanding. Everything about this movie is executed in complete service to the story. There’s no ego in the final product. This is a movie without pretense or cynicism. All it does is tell a story about its characters.
Nowadays, we expect a trick up every movie’s sleeve, but here’s something you probably won’t expect: Manchester by the Sea is one of the funniest films of the year. Yes, you read that correctly – it’s funny. Laugh out loud funny, a lot of the time. While it’s still a drama that deals with serious issues, the heart of this film is in the humanistic comedy of its characters. Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan clearly understands that comedy and tragedy go hand in hand. The tragedy hits us hard and affects us so much because we care about these characters. They’re as real as family, and as likeable as friends. None more so than newcomer Lucas Hedges.
“I’m working on it.”
While Casey Affleck is the strong anchor of this film, Lucas Hedges is the beating heart. This is by design, as Patrick (Hedges) is consistently contrasted with Lee (Affleck). Lee is forlorn, sullen, and lifeless, while Patrick is almost defiantly charming and likeable, despite having just lost his father. Patrick, as a character, shouldn’t work on screen. He’s a school athlete with jock friends, a band, and two separate girlfriends. He’s exactly the type of character audiences are meant to root against. Yet he’s so bright, so human, so incredibly believable in the face of tragedy that you can’t help but root for him. Which, in a surprising turn, often means rooting against Affleck’s character. Most of the films funniest, most joyful moments, come directly from Hedge’s line delivery and performance.
The rest of the cast is dependable. Kyle Chandler is convincing as Lee’s brother, Joe, and as more is revealed by the story’s end, the relationship between the three male characters makes a lot of sense. Michelle Williams doesn’t get a lot of screen-time, but she doesn’t waste the little that she has. Gretchen Mol shows a number of interesting sides to her character Elise, and Matthew Broderick makes a surprise appearance in a small role in the later half of the film. His performance is the only one in the movie that isn’t wholly genuine, but it makes sense once you get to know his character. C.J. Wilson rounds out the main characters in the film as a family friend who helps the Chandler’s out in their time of need. Like everyone else, it’s hard to see any acting at all with him.
“I can’t beat it.”
There are two tragedies at the centre of Manchester by the Sea, and they haunt Patrick and Lee throughout. As you learn more about those tragedies, and the two men, the film jumps between the past and present to show you how things were, and how they are. This film is all about contrast. Lee and Patrick, the past and the present, even how people deal with loss. But it’s not a film about judgement. Lonergan isn’t concerned with telling us who’s right and who’s wrong. Manchester by the Sea is just about these characters dealing with this situation. This film is a window into the lives of the fictional people who inhabit it, and we’re invited to watch, to contrast, and to connect.
Manchester by the Sea is nominated for several Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and Best Actor for Casey Affleck. It certainly deserves every nomination it’s received so far, and will probably go on to be one of those movies people keep discovering for themselves for the next couple of years. If you have the chance to see it, either at home or in theatres, don’t miss out. Yes, it’s certainly a tearjerker at times, but it’s also deeply hilarious, totally moving, and entirely engrossing. It’s absolutely one of the best films of the year, and a tremendous start for first-time U.S distributor Amazon Studios. This is a special movie, filled with realistic characters. You owe it to yourself to see it.
My Rating: 9/10