Film Review – Manchester by the Sea
Manchester by the Sea
A common sentiment regarding grief is it can express itself in any number of ways. One might commendably mold it into a creative outlet or venture while another might self-medicate, lash out, or lash out in a self-medicated haze. Lee Chandler, the focal point of writer/director Kenneth Lonergan‘s masterful new film Manchester by the Sea, makes a strong case for re-inventing the latter.
Casey Affleck stars as Lee, a near-catatonic Boston handyman who deflects positive attention in favor of regularly drinking himself into fist-wielding stupors. Our first hint of an emotional center comes only once he receives a phone call regarding his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler), sending Lee rushing back to his hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea.
Throughout a series of intricately placed flashbacks, we learn Joe had previously been diagnosed with a degenerative heart condition and given only a handful of years to live. This leaves us to wonder why Lee chose to move to Boston in the first place, a move which results in him just missing the opportunity to say goodbye. This question, alongside many others, are revealed at their own enveloping pace.
(Brief, personal aside: I lost my brother to cancer at the beginning of this year and the hospital sequences wrecked me with their sheer accuracy. The stark reality of the business of it all intertwined with the requisite sympathy is simply devastating.)
The crux of the film, if even there is one, is the curve ball Joe posthumously throws Lee’s way. Namely, his will stipulation that he become primary guardian of his 16 year old son Patrick (a truly phenomenal Lucas Hedges). Knowing what we know of Lee at this point, this development seems not only irresponsible but impossible. In Lee’s own words, “I was just a back up.” Emotionally unstable as he may be, though, the few allusions to Patrick’s mother (Gretchen Mol) imply his options may be limited.
The depiction of Patrick immediately following his father’s death is a marvel. Not just the palpable contentions and realistic overlapping, yelly dialogue between him and Uncle Lee, but the simple fact that his life does not end when Joe’s does. Good portions of the film deal with the high school struggle of rigorous hockey practice and trying to get laid with the girl’s parent in the other room. In another movie this could feel superfluous or in poor taste but, as proven capably in previous efforts You Can Count On Me and Margaret, Lonergan’s master touch comes in dealing with the messy tangents of reality. He mines authentic as hell performances from his primary cast while also managing to flesh out those with just a few scenes. (How have I gotten this far without touching on the absolutely stunning performance by Michelle Williams as Lee’s ex-wife?)
The crafty nature in which Lonergan inserts flashbacks allows for a gradual reveal that will color everything you’ve seen to that point in a harrowing new light. Manchester by the Sea will rattle you to your core. It’s also the best movie of the year.