Written and Directed by Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea is a slice of life picture about dealing with grief and tragedy. But don’t worry, it’s actually pretty funny too.
Lee (Casey Affleck) is working as a janitor just outside Boston. He’s a reserved man who doesn’t suffer fools and has been known to start fights when he gets drunk. While at work one day, he receives a call from a family friend, George (C.J. Wilson). Lee’s brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), has had a heart attack and is in the hospital – about a ninety minute drive. Lee rushes to be by his brother’s side, but by the time he arrives, he is told that Joe passed away an hour ago. He leaves the hospital to see his teenaged nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Patrick takes the news as well as can be expected—his father had congestive heart failure, so death by heart attack wasn’t completely unexpected—and Lee sets to making arrangements for Joe’s funeral. On a trip to see Joe’s lawyer, Lee is shocked to find out that Joe named him as Patrick’s guardian and he doesn’t feel as if he’s up to the task. He informs Patrick that they will have to move to Boston, where Lee’s job is, but Patrick doesn’t want to leave his life and his friends. He asks Lee what’s so special about a janitorial job in Boston and feels unwanted by his uncle. However, through flashbacks, the audience learns that there is indeed a reason why Lee doesn’t want to stay in Manchester or moreover, why he can’t.
Manchester by the Sea is an absolute masterpiece and easily one of the best films of the year. The screenplay by Lonergan is expertly crafted, detailing both horrific tragedy as well as comedy and making both tones work. This film is equal parts heartbreaking and funny with fully-realized characters that feel like real people. It is a slice of life film that ends slightly open-ended, which may irritate some viewers, but it is also a film that will stick with you long after the film has ended. As usual, I don’t want to give a ton away with this one, so I’ll just say, it’s phenomenal.
Aside from the great script, the film is powered by equally fantastic performances. Affleck does an amazing job portraying a man trying to keep his grief under control. It’s a quiet, understated performance, but after seeing the film, I can’t see anyone playing it better. He comes across at first as an asshole, but once you learn his story, you’ll completely empathize with him. Michelle Williams puts in an excellent performance as Lee’s ex-wife Randi. There is one scene with Williams and Affleck toward the end of the film that is heart-wrenching. The real treat here, though, is Lucas Hedges as Patrick. He’s got great delivery and timing and is able to keep up with all these veteran actors. Chandler is also good as Joe, though he doesn’t get as much screen time as I would have liked. Gretchen Mol also gives a fine performance as Patrick’s estranged mother. Matthew Broderick—a Lonergan regular—also shows up as Mol’s new husband, who is a devout Christian. When those two are on the screen together, there are definitely some creepy undertones. Just some great work by a fantastic ensemble, but Affleck, Williams, and Hedges really carry the day.
Overall, Manchester by the Sea is one of the year’s best films. Lonergan’s film expertly captures grief and how we deal with it, but it never gets bogged down in misery or feels like a slog. It features one of the best ensemble casts of the year and is an absolute must-see.