Review: “Manchester By The Sea”

Posted by Michael Parsons on December 30, 2016 in / No Comments


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.

manchester_by_the_seaLee 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.

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— M. Parsons

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Michael Parsons

Father. Realtor®. Movie nut. After pestering my parents for their commentary on “Star Wars” when I was four years old, my mind went into a creative frenzy. I’d imagined something entirely different than the actual film, which I didn’t end up seeing until its 1979 re-release at the Uptown Theater in Washington, DC. This was my formal introduction to the cinema.

During that long wait, which felt like an eternity to a child, my mind was being molded by more corrosive stuff like “Trilogy of Terror” and “Rosemary’s Baby”, most of which I’d conned various babysitters into letting me watch on television ( I convinced one poor lady that “Jaws” was actually “Moby Dick”).

The folks were pretty strict in that regard, so the less appropriate it was for a kid to watch, the more I was fascinated by it. Horror staples like “Halloween” and “Friday the 13th”, as well as lesser-known low-budget fare like “Madman”, “Sleepaway Camp” and “Pieces” all ended up sneaking their way into the VHS on a regular basis.

Since then, I’ve developed an obsession with the entire film industry. Even though I watch and review a wide breadth of films these days, my appreciation for the campy, poorly lit micro-budgeters still lends itself to my evolving perspective on movies just as much as the summer blockbusters and Oscar contenders. As I recall my trips to the movie theater, I realize that this stuff is about much more than just a fleeting piece of entertainment.

A couple years ago, I was finally given the opportunity to lend my opinion on films to a publication, The Rogers Revue, with a subsequent run at Reel Film News. It's been both a privilege and a gateway to what we’re doing now. Most of my experience has come from interviewing independent filmmakers, who consistently promote innovation. The filmmaking process is grueling and relatively unforgiving.

Fellow film enthusiast Eddie Pasa and I have created DC Filmdom as a medium for film reviews, discussion, and (inevitably) some debate. And so, the creative frenzy continues.

(Michael is a member of the Washington, DC Area Film Critics Association).

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