Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges shine in Manchester by the Sea, a slow-burner of a story about loss, tragedy and family that takes hold of your heart and doesn’t let go.
Kenneth Lonergan’s much acclaimed Manchester by the Sea tells the story of Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), a handyman who lives alone in Quincy, Massachusetts and largely keeps to himself, excepting his instigation of the occasional bar brawl whilst in an alcoholic stupor. That is until the sudden death of his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) draws him out of his one-room flat and back to his home town of Manchester-by-the-Sea, where he must inform Joe’s son Patrick (Lucas Hedges) of the news. We are offered glimpses into Lee’s former life with wife Randi (Michelle Williams) and the times shared by the two brothers and young Patrick on the family boat. When Lee goes to attend to Joe’s will, he is shocked to discover that Joe named him as Patrick’s guardian. No longer able to live alone, Lee wrestles with the implications of looking after a 16-year-old, his new responsibility and his personal demons.
This is not an edge-of-the-seat story but it doesn’t need to be; it gradually draws you in and just as you think you’re getting to grips with Lee’s character an incredibly emotional and climactic scene whacks you around the head. Interestingly, the film’s central premise is not established until around an hour into the narrative, allowing the audience time to settle into Lee’s current life and then gradually take in the sea air of his old home town before Lee’s traumatic past and present challenges are fully explored.
The film has a very striking way of handling temporality, showing present events alongside events of the past without making it clear whether the scene that you are watching is happening now or prior to Joe’s death. Lonergan does not make any stylistic adjustments when moving backwards and forwards in time, although it becomes increasingly easier to piece together the timeline. Initially disconcerting, it is an extremely effective choice that appears to signify the importance of past events in Lee’s life on his present.
Casey Affleck manages to make a man seemingly lacking any personality both loveable, relatable and often amusing. Exuding a Milo-Ventimiglia-as-Jess-from-Gilmore-Girls vibe with his expressionless reactions and detached, un-enigmatic persona, there is something endearing about him that is brought out all the more by Lucas Hedges as Patrick. The film may have received across-the-board praise but too little has been said of its great humour and the wonderful chemistry of these central players whose compatibility and talent culminate in a heart-wrenching scene involving a freezer door.
Manchester by the Sea is a story of trauma and tragedy but also of love and finding joy through heartache. The film packs a huge emotional punch that creeps up on you and you will likely find tears falling from your face whilst having been so invested in the images on screen that you didn’t even notice that you’d started crying.
Director: Kenneth Lonergan
Run Time: 137 minutes