Starring: Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, Michelle Williams
Directed by: Kenneth Lonergan (“You Can Count On Me”)
Written by: Kenneth Lonergan (“Gangs of New York”)
Tragedy and grief are some of the universal occurrences that every human on the Earth experiences. It is where we, as people, often find ourselves at the lowest. It is also a test of strength. Many films this year will deal with how people, sometimes normal, sometimes in the spotlight, deal with that tragedy. “Jackie” for example, follows Jackie Kennedy in the hours and days following her husband’s assassination. But perhaps no film this year quite explores the wake of tragedy like “Manchester by the Sea,” a powerful ensemble character study of a devastated family.
After the death of his brother, Lee (Casey Affleck) must return to the Massachusetts fishing village that he left years ago to take care of his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Reluctantly, Lee tries to deal with his current situation while simultaneously dealing with past experiences with his now estranged ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams). Through these experiences, Lee and Patrick try to bond and make the best of an unenviable situation.
Leading the way of the ensemble is Affleck, who is primed to nab his first Oscar nomination since 2008 and is likely the frontrunner to win. It’s a subtle and subdued performance, but also one that has nuance and depth. There’s a certain pain in Affleck’s face that is visible in almost every scene. His character has lost the ability to interact and function on a normal level and Affleck displays this perfectly with vacant eyes that stare off into the distance. Not to be outdone, Affleck’s performance is matched by newcomer Hedges who employs a fantastic Boston accent, and is at times reminiscent of a young Matt Damon. Hedges’ character is a bit rascally, but the way he is able to maintain a level of sweetness as well as display some serious acting chops make for a really empathetic character.
Credit should be given to screenwriter/director Kenneth Lonergan for refusing to pull any punches. Make no mistake: “Manchester by the Sea” is not an easy watch. There are some devastating revelations throughout and many characters face impossible situations. It would be easy for the film to teeter towards melodrama, but it’s a testament to the strength of the screenplay that Lonergan is able to balance these heavier moments with levity and humor, mostly between Affleck and Hedges who continually butt heads.
The film slowly reveals its details, and despite the enormity of the situations, consistently feels grounded and extremely realistic. Perhaps it’s the working class look of the picturesque landscapes of Manchester, or even Affleck’s blue collar job as a handyman, but “Manchester by the Sea” feels authentic and true. Some may find it slow, but those parts are important to show the depths of Affleck’s despair, which is the most important narrative factor of the film.
As Oscar season heats up, “Manchester by the Sea” is undoubtedly a player. Acting nominations will be aplenty and Lonergan’s absorbing script is sure to get some notice. It’s a pretty basic story, with some pretty dramatic turns and although the plot may seem slight, the film is certainly anything but.