A film review by Craig J. Koban January 31, 2017

RANK:  #17


2016, R, 137 mins.


Casey Affleck as Lee Chandler  /  Michelle Williams as Randi  /  Kyle Chandler as Joe Chandler  /  Lucas Hedges as Patrick  /  Gretchen Mol as Elise  /  C.J. Wilson as George

Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan

Kenneth Lonergan's MANCHESTER BY THE SEA is a devastatingly sad, yet darkly comic portrait of working class family grief after dealing with personal tragedy.  

It's also about a man so broken down by life and his past that he feels very little impetus to meaningfully and intimately latch onto anything in the present.  This self-destructive and unhealthily depressed loner has his life upended when his older brother passes away, leaving him to face the challenge of becoming his teenage nephew's new guardian.  It many respects, Lonergan's film meditates on accepting the loss of loved one when taken from a family far too young in life, but it's also about accepting larger responsibilities beyond yourself and coming to grips with your past indiscretions so that you can move positively forward in the future. 

All of this prologue makes MANCHESTER BY THE SEA feel like another in an awfully long line of formulaic and saccharine and melodramatic TV movies of the week, but Lonergan places infinitely more respect in the intelligence and patience of his viewers to allow for his work to devolve to such shameful levels.  The film mocks standard grieving family drama troupes and conventions by subverting our very expectations for this material, not to mention that Lonergan fills his story with an authentic grit and texture that makes his characters and their respective plights feel all the more relatable and credibly lived-in.  He allows these well dimensioned and deeply flawed people to occupy center stage and, more often than not, the performances and dialogue have such an immersive veracity that you're made to feel like you're eavesdropping on real people suffering through torment together.  There are individual moments in MANCHESTER BY THE SEA that are tortuously depressing to watch, but when the film is inhabited by personas of atypical depth that go on personal journeys without a preordained path it becomes an oddly uplifting experience to behold.



The aforementioned sad sack is Lee (Casey Affleck, in career high form), a downtrodden soul that ekes out a meager and pathetic life as a lonely, minimum wage paid janitor for a series of Boston apartments (the opening sections of the film perfectly highlight just how soul suckingly awful his monotonous daily grind is).  He has virtually no friends, is divorced from his wife (Michelle Williams), and spends his free time getting intoxicated at bars and picking fights.  His miserable life is made all the more insufferable when he receives a call that his older brother Joe (Kyle Chander) has suddenly died due to heart failure, leaving his teenage son Patrick (Lucas Hedges) parentless.  Just when Lee feels like he has hit absolute emotional rock bottom, he shockingly learns from his sibling's will that his dying wishes were for him to become Patrick's guardian until he becomes an adult.  Not only does Lee self-knowingly acknowledge how horrible he would be as the young man's surrogate father, but he also realizes that looking after Patrick would involve him moving back home to Manchester, a prospect that - based on a disastrous personal event in his past - would most likely all but destroy his sanity.

Lee is a thoroughly fascinating, if not sometimes toxically dislikeable lead character, but the latter is only initially true because Lonergan fills in informational gaps about Lee's past that speaks volumes as to why he would rather be dead than return to indefinitely live in Manchester full time.  Lonergan asks us throughout MANCHESTER BY THE SEA to understand Lee's suffering and not simplistically judge him for his current abusively anti-social ways; he has legitimate reasons for (a) not wanting to be Patrick's guardian and (b) not wanting to move back to Manchester.  Lonergan wants audience members to put faith in him as a storyteller to slowly, but surely fill in all the blanks about this semi-mysterious character as the narrative progresses.  Navigating through Lee's deeply fractured psyche is no easy task, but Lonergan seems equal to the task by making us feel his traumas while simultaneously trying to empathize with it.

That's ultimately what makes MANCHESTER BY THE SEA so completely captivating: it's so carefully and sensitively observant of all of its characters and their troubled relationships with one another.  All of the people in this family are trying to process their sadness and grief in their own unique ways, and Lonergan finds engrossing ways of tapping into how this family uses coping and defense mechanisms to get through each new relatively mundane day.  The core relationship in the story between Lee and Patrick is especially well tailored and feels unlike so many other movie representations of uncles and nephews.  They're not so much distant relatives forced together by disastrously strenuous circumstances as they are like a pair of odd couple roommates that are completely uncensored at revealing to each other how they really feel.  MANCHESTER BY THE SEA is very appropriately rated R for the ongoing string of colorful f-bombs that these two (and most other family members here) casually hurl at each other, but it's crucial in selling Patrick's and Lee's tenuous bond.  It also leads to some of the film's largest laughs, which usually come during moments between the pair when Patrick's quietly rebellious behavior comes in contact with Lee's oftentimes hilarious indifference with it. 

Despite a slew of superlative performances in films like THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD (which he was Oscar nominated for), INTERSTELLAR, and GONE BABY GONE, Casey Affleck is an actor of remarkable aptitude that often goes unnoticed because of the large shadow that his older brother Ben casts over him in the industry.  Yet, his searing work in MANCHESTER BY THE SEA should help eclipse that, as he has an absolute field day inhabiting this achingly miserable man that is constantly putting up barriers between himself and others.   Very few actors are as masterful as Affleck at selling despair and unease with minimal to no dialogue and just modest body language; it's a tour de force performance of internalized desolation.   Lucas Hedges is also brilliantly cast here in the tricky role of Lee's nephew that has to abrasively fight his uncle for independence while at the same time relaying a reliance of his care and love.   He's also afforded infinitely more layers and depth than a handful of other adolescent characters from recent witless dramas.  And Michelle Williams - whose screen time is very limited - has a scene late in the film with Affleck as both characters desperately try to let their guards down by inviting each other in after years of stressful estrangement; it's one of the most tear-inducingly hard to watch scenes from 2016.

It would be easy to label MANCHESTER BY THE SEA as a drama that wallows in shared human anguish, but that would be unfair because Lonergan finds great instances of wry humor that he rings out of the frequent indignities that his characters have to persevere through.  If anything, this film thanklessly segues between pathos and comedy in its deadpan exchanges between characters that make us laugh when their not prompting us to reach for a Kleenex.  Not all of MANCHESTER BY SEA is flawlessly executed: There are times when Lonergan gets a bit to obtrusively flamboyant with music cues in some vital scenes, in particular when silence would have been the best choice.  That, and the narrative's frequent flashbacks, albeit necessary, are sometimes awkwardly juxtaposed with scenes from the present to the point of being jarring.  Yet, there's no discounting this film's raw dramatic power and graceful handling of its story about loss, reconciliation, and obligation.  By the time the film ends it reaches a somewhat ambiguous conclusion, hinting that these characters will continue to go on a spiritual path together to further heal their still fresh emotional wounds.  In terms of movies that capture the burdensome and stressful ebbs and flows of family life, MANCHESTER BY THE SEA is one of the more finely attuned examples.  


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