Sitting there at the New York Film Festival, just as with anywhere one might watch a film, there are things that work and things that don’t. Some movies leave you flat and others hit you like a freight train, offering what might feel like a small story, but a tragic and heartbreaking one that floors you. This last is a perfect description of the Kenneth Lonergan written and directed “Manchester by the Sea.”
The touching drama stars Casey Affleck as Lee Chandler, a super for a series of buildings in Boston. He is a man who works hard during the day and then heads to a bar at night so he can drink himself into a stupor and, maybe, get himself beaten up. From the film’s outset it is clear that Lee is trying to run away from a past that is always there, always right behind him, but which he can’t escape.
Soon enough, he is forced to confront it as his brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), passes away and Lee has to return home to Manchester-by-the-Sea to handle Joe’s affairs and figure out the best way to help his nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Joe’s ex is out of the picture but Lee’s, Randi (Michelle Williams), still lives in Manchester with someone new.
Slowly but surely, Lee’s history unfolds. We learn what drove him away from Manchester, why he is shocked that Joe has made him Patrick’s guardian, and what has caused Lee’s self-hate.
It is a slow, methodical film, Lonergan allows each scene all the time it needs to play out, not rushing any single moment or performance. The story takes place during winter and that cold seems to seep into every frame of the movie, whether it takes place inside or out.
This last bit is not to say that the movie doesn’t have happiness as well. In fact, just as Lonergan, Affleck, and Hedges are exceptional at exploring the depths of sadness, there is an incredible amount of humor as well. Hedges particularly is truly hysterical, and yet, each bit of humor feels like it comes at the expense of the appropriate solemnity of the situation – not that it’s wrong, just that it exists because if it didn’t everyone would wind up crying (again). It is the joke told at a funeral or wake, the one that causes everyone to forget, if only for a second, their upset.
“Manchester by the Sea” seems like one of those perfect films. It tells what feels like the story of real people who are doing their damnedest to be the best version of themselves they can be, but struggling and sometimes failing to live up to that ideal. It doesn’t deal with grandiose stories about saving the world or solving some massive crisis, it is just about this guy, this one guy, who wishes to god that he could do more, do better, and take back his mistakes. It is about how you go on after something horrible and try to rebuild. It is about hurting the ones you love despite all your best efforts and how about how sometimes there is no taking back that pain.
At the center of this whole thing, and the only reason it works, is Affleck and Hedges. As we head into “awards season,” this movie is going to be talked about, it has been already, and Affleck a part of that discussion, but it would be criminal if Hedges isn’t included as well.
When I sit to watch movies I have to review, I take copious amounts of notes, writing down my thoughts as they come and praying that later those things that seemed like genius discussions in the middle of my watching are more than just nonsensical ramblings. I don’t have notes for “Manchester by the Sea,” and I don’t have them not because I didn’t have my paper and a pen, but rather because from the first moment to the last it is a wholly engrossing thing of beauty.
It isn’t an easy film to watch, and it isn’t going to impart some added sense of wisdom about the world, but “Manchester by the Sea” is an absolute must this year. Don’t miss it.
photo credit: Roadside Attractions