Manchester by the Sea is the equivalent of an arthouse blockbuster. It’s an impressively made drama from acclaimed writer/director/playwright Kenneth Lonergan about a man’s grief, while back in his hometown. It features reserved, but impressive performances from the likes of arthouse favorites Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams, with an expanded running time to make sure we follow all the moving parts to these characters and this story. Manchester by the Sea allows for more resonance when it comes to taking in the emotional payoffs of a feature like this. There’s also the universal nature to the film being shown, which means it has enough heart and humor to go along with the drama and make it ultimately quite rewarding.
Affleck stars as Lee Chandler, in a performance that serves as the epitome of solid film acting. He’s a regular guy who lives on his own in Boston. The sudden death of Lee’s brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) means returning home to Manchester-by-the-Sea and discovering that Lee is now the sole guardian of his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). This means figuring out what to do next as far as living arrangements. Lee also has to deal with being back in the community he comes from, which means dealing with the presence of his ex-wife Randi (Williams).
Populated by flashbacks that help you understand who Lee is and various turns in the present day narrative to keep things feeling unpredictable, yet natural, Manchester by the Sea goes as far as it needs to in an effort to paint an appropriate picture of life. At 137 minutes (with credits), it is not the kind of film feels like it is headed somewhere specifically, but it does put the audience in with Lee, as he goes through an odyssey of emotional turmoil. And yet, the film does well in making Affleck’s reserved handling of the character feel like a great example of how careful discipline can help to inform a character attempting to recover from some truly sad ordeals.
In saying that, it is time to mention the surprising amount of humor in this film. Mainly stemming from the wonderful work also done by Hedges (and occasional moments of Lee being fed up and speaking frankly), the film is a drama that has not lost its sense of humanity. People are not perfect, nor are they constantly dour. Grief takes all sorts of forms and placing Lee and Patrick together makes for lots of strange and interesting expressions for how they feel. Being set in this New England town also means you get plenty of colorful characters and the various accents and attitudes to go with them.
The supporting cast includes Gretchen Mol, Matthew Broderick, Heather Burns, Tate Donovan and Kara Hayward. That’s just a list of the bigger stars present, but the film does fine to bring in these actors along with a lot of other character actors to really help build the world of this film. The community angle is a big part of understanding who these people are and how to react when everybody seems to be familiar with everyone, especially when it comes to past events.
Lonergan excels at getting all of this out in his writing, as there is a relaxed sense of pace to what is going on, but the dialogue is sharp when it needs to be. Quieter moments are matched by arguments and the details found in both kinds of exchanges always feel instep with what is going on. It is the way to feel the impact of seeing a character burst into anger or awkwardly handle themselves around others.
With all this, it comes down to Affleck and what this story does to wrap itself around a guy who has suffered a number of setbacks and appear largely numb throughout the film. While he has had a willingness to play up a comedic side for roles in the past, the actor has built up a steady number of dramatic roles from Gone Baby Gone to The Assassination of Jesse James to Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. With Manchester by the Sea, there is a stripped down quality to what he needs to do here, but it hardly minimalizes the kind of effort you see in what he brings to his performance. It is measured and effective, with great support from Williams, Hedges and Chandler for Affleck to play off of.
Shot effectively by cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes and edited for maximum effectiveness by Jennifer Lame, the film does fine to capture this place, yet square the focus where need be. The film is long, but hardly uninvolving. It takes a lot to find this careful balance, but given the sort of tragic moments these characters deal with, it is great to find the film doing well to catch its breath every so often. By the time we reach an endpoint, it is clear the value of relationships has made an impact that helps to deal with circumstances presented. Having a film so well constructed makes the effort to discern that quite clear.
Manchester by the Sea played well at the Sundance Film Festival back in January and for good reason. It assembles a few characters together into a story with the kind of dramatic urgency that keeps you compelled in wanting these characters to get better. Spending time with them leads to some moments of humor, but seeing the sadness in their eyes makes you wish for them to have better days. Getting to feel that way means a film has done its job and Lonergan most certainly has.