If 2016 gave us an unforgettable drama, it was “Manchester By The Sea”. Since “Gone Baby, Gone” (directed by his older brother Ben), Casey Affleck has seemed to fly just under the radar, comfortably nestled in his niche of challenging dramatic/indie roles, nary a rom-com nor comic book flick on his résumé. This film is collectively writer/director Kenneth Lonergan and Affleck’s crowning achievement. A pic that gives more than enough for one’s honest opinion to appear hyperbolic—instant classic, masterpiece, profound, deeply moving etc.—as if kowtowing to the Oscar hype with the scores of other raves reviews, “Manchester By The Sea” was one that I admittedly approached with some apprehension. Well, it had me aching for days. So there you have it.
Lonergan tells the story of Lee Chandler (Affleck), a handyman eking out a living in a southern suburb of Boston, who heads back to his hometown of Manchester-By-The-Sea when he gets news of his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) having a fatal heart attack.
Lee is either inhumanly stoic, or he’s already reached his threshold of suffering, and one more tragedy is just white noise. His return causes a quiet stirring among his teenage nephew Patrick’s hockey team when Lee comes to break the news about his father. “Is that the Lee Chandler?” It’s either some sort of stigma, or he was once a local hockey legend.
Joe’s death was anticipated, to a degree; he had a congenital defect, and his life expectancy had been significantly reduced. This puts Patrick (Lucas Hedges) in Lee’s care, a responsibility Lee insists he’s incapable of. He takes on the role of temporary guardian, mainly because he doesn’t want Patrick re-introduced to his estranged recovering addict mother (Gretchen Mol). Her attempts to make amends seem genuine, but are surreptitious. When they meet, she has the awkward demeanor of a Stepford Wife (Matthew Broderick cameos as her new husband).
Now a somewhat rebellious teen who plays in a garage band and juggles girlfriends, Patrick is hellbent on restoring his father’s boat—a vessel that carries with it much happier memories, as we see— but Lee wants to sell for lack of money. Struggling to get through the ordeal of revisiting his past more than playing role model, Affleck’s aura suggests his character has sustained irreparable psychological damage. His anger manifests itself in bar fights that he instigates, while he shows zero interest in the bevy of females who flirt with him.
Things are brought into focus by his ex-wife Randi, played by Michelle Williams, in a devastating turn, and again in a later encounter that will prove both actors’ finest moments. My synopsis is purposefully vague, as I knew little about plot points going in and all the better for it. Though tragic, “Manchester By The Sea” is not that leaden, depressing affair like so many artsy , go-nowhere depresso-fests. Each character has a distinctive arc, because people process grief and change in so many ways. Some get past it, some don’t, and this is what makes Lonergan’s filmmaking so extraordinary, the balance, telling and timing of that transition. Heavy material with delicate performances, not to mention gorgeous wintery scenery (DP Jody Lee Lipes, evoking his work on “Martha Marcy May Marlene”), which is the only element that remains unchanged. Bravo, Affleck, Williams and Lonergan, may props await you. This is one magnificent movie.
— M. Parsons