As the saying goes, it's the quiet ones that you have to look out for. Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester By the Sea left audiences breathless at the Sundance Film Festival, which only continued to impress each step it took along the festival circuit. However, this isn't your typical over-the-top drama that seeks to infuse as many tear jerking moments as possible. Rather, it feels more like a portrait of life in its rawest form, and when it rains, it pours. This film is quiet in its delivery, but certainly impactful in its execution of deep themes, such as family, loss, and coping with life.
Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) lives a seemingly lonely life as a janitor. When he receives an important call that his brother (Kyle Chandler) has passed away, he returns back to his hometown to pick up the pieces. Lee soon realizes that he's forced to take care of his teenage nephew named Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Now, he must face the demons of the past in order to solve the problems of the present.
Most films glaze over the topic of death in order to utilize it as a plot device to move the lead character's story forward. However, Manchester By the Sea spends quite some time dwelling in preparations after a death in the family. While Lee continues to come to terms with the loss of his brother, he must set up the funeral and handle all other responsibilities. However, none of it comes across as dull; it's actually quite the contrary. These scenes feel incredibly intimate, as Lee and Patrick navigate this difficult time. Their relationship primarily roots back to the teenager's childhood, as Lee's departure has greatly changed the way that they interact with one another. The evolution of their connection is placed at the forefront of the film, although it doesn't quite end where one would imagine it would.
When Lee returns to his hometown, each person he comes across is shocked to see him back. Some seem sympathetic, while others are a bit more aggressive. It's rather clear that something significant occurred, although Lonergan doesn't immediately inform the audience of the details. He eventually incorporates flashbacks, which are ordinarily a cheap way to provide exposition. However, he utilizes them in a way that are smart and natural to the storytelling. Instead of pulling away from the feature, these scenes actually improve upon the emotional impact. This is greatly credited to the impressive editing that allows the film to flow so well. Even the smallest of character details that would seem useless from a glance are what ultimately allow the audience to feel as if we have known these people for years. This is how Manchester By the Sea develops such a well-developed connection between the characters and the viewer.
Lonergan has crafted a story that initially sounds familiar, but it moves in unexpected ways. "Bad" and "good" aren't what they seem, as this displays humanity as naturally flawed. Everybody is simply trying their best to get by, although each character handles grief differently. The typical festival drama generally leaves our characters in the same way, although Manchester By the Sea's final impression is quite different. Most things in life aren't wrapped up as nicely as they are in cinema, and Lonergan reflects that extremely well. Despite its 135 minute running time, the pacing is smooth as could be. Even when the credits begin to roll, it feels as if we could have spent even more time with these characters; they're that compelling.
While the filmmaker has already proven his talent, it may take the film's stellar cast to bring some audiences to their local theater. Casey Affleck is absolutely phenomenal as Lee Chandler. This is an Oscar caliber performance that will certainly bring him back into the spotlight. While the film didn't quite manage to bring me to tears, Affleck certainly delivers a massive quantity of emotion that radiates off the screen. Lucas Hedges proves that he's a young actor to watch, as he provides the role of Patrick with an abundance of complexity. Michelle Williams is a powerhouse as Randi. While her screen time is much more limited, she once again displays a level of range that we rarely see in modern filmmaking. This is an impressive round of performances that allow the feature to reach the emotional heights that it does.
It's extremely rare to find a film that feels this genuine. Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan has crafted a feature that exceeds expectations that were already high. The characters are portrayed with some serious troubles, although they all exist within the same gray space. None of them are "good" or "bad," as they are all just trying to push through life. However, the world is much more messy and complicated than Hollywood would like to admit. There's no simple mission that needs to be solved here, as the lead is constantly faced with life responsibilities and obstacles that are much more hard-hitting and gut-wrenching. Casey Affleck delivers the performance of his career, which is deserving of an Oscar nomination at the very least. Manchester By the Sea is a deeply impactful drama that executes every note to near perfection. Highly recommended!