Manchester by the Sea
As a kid, I remember sitting in the living room after Terms of Endearment was on HBO. I might’ve been around 14-years-old, and hadn’t cried that much watching a movie since The Champ years earlier. My parents had a weird disagreement. My stepdad was asking why anybody would find a movie entertaining that deals with a woman dying of cancer. He barked, “How do you get enjoyment watching people die?!”
It’s a decent point, but I disagree. A great story is a great story, whether you laugh or cry. You do both in this movie, and it’s why I think writer and director Kenneth Lonergan is one of the best working writers today. He blew me away with his first movie You Can Count on Me (it was the first time I realized Laura Linney was one of the top actresses working today). His movie Margaret was pretty good, and now he takes a break from all the plays he’s done, to give us this gem. In a year in which studios have given us two boxing movies that feature Roberto Duran, it’s this movie that will be the toughest punch to the gut you’ll take. That might mean it’s not for everyone, but for adults looking for a good drama, you might not find a better picture this year. It’s certainly ending up on my Top 10 list.
The film takes place in the northeastern Massachusetts town of Manchester. Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is living in Boston, working as a handyman for a few apartment buildings. You can’t quite figure out why he doesn’t seem interested when women make passes at him, or why he’s so quick to get into a scrap at the local bar.
His brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has been diagnosed with heart failure, and he’s driving home to be with him. That makes this the second movie in my Top 10 that deals with a strong brothers’ bond (Hell or High Water being the other).
A lot of people have been praising Casey Affleck’s acting for awhile. I thought he was okay in Gone Baby Gone, but it felt like a forced tough guy. He was decent in The Assassination of Jesse James, and had an interesting stoic quality in The Finest Hours earlier this year. Yet in this movie, all the Oscar buzz you’re hearing about him is warranted. It’s a role that reminded me of his co-star in Good Will Hunting — Matt Damon. Their characters are smart, troubled guys, working menial jobs. Both actors had to convey a range of emotions in those roles, and Affleck knocks it out of the park here. There are three scenes with Michelle Williams that are just perfect. They’re free of cliche, they’re emotional, and they tell us a lot about these characters. They show these people as flawed, yet we can still feel for them. It all feels…real.
We know Williams is a terrific actress with Oscar nominations (go find Blue Valentine)…but aside from these two heavyweights, we get newcomer Lucas Hedges, playing a teenager named Patrick. He conveys a teenager the way they rarely are on film, and that’s refreshing. At times he has to act arrogant, spoiled, or awkward. It’s what we all know teenagers to be, but seldom see on screen, where filmmakers often make them one-dimensional. Where this comes to a head involves discussions about whether this teenager should live in Boston, or the hometown he loves and has girlfriends, a hockey team, a boat, etc.
Another thing this movie does brilliantly are the comedic moments. Obviously, if it’s filled with a bunch of heavy emotional elements, it might be too much. Yet the teenager brings a lot of humor. A few of those scenes involve conversations about his two girlfriends and how far he gets with them.
Cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes (Trainwreck) captures the beauty of this seaside town, with the waves rippling and chilly days and nights.
The lush film score is nice and they use classical pieces — a large chunk of Albinoni’s Adagio is played, as well as some Duke Ellington. It all fits the story perfectly.
This is the type of movie you’ll think about for weeks afterwards. Sometimes I think about the small scenes, that as they were happening, I didn’t give much thought to. One of those involve Lee asking a fisherman friend for a job. As he leaves, a woman (wife or co-worker?) says, “I don’t ever want to see him here again!”
You wonder why. Is he a womanizer? Is he an alcoholic (we certainly see him at bars)? Eventually, as this movie shows us the various layers of what is happening, we get some insight. It also makes it more powerful when we go from watching a sad sack feeling sorry for himself, to us actually caring about him.
There’s a scene where Lee has a fight with his wife. It’s done brilliantly. You can understand where both characters are coming from, and again, it all feels so real. You might not always love these characters, but you certainly understand them. And Lonergan does the characters justice, by not exploiting them, but making them fully realized in every possible way.
That doesn’t mean it’s without its flaws (although they’re very minor). Affleck’s character is a bit underwritten, and sometimes the movie is a bit orchestrated.
This is a drama for grown-ups, with unfolding layers and flashbacks that are brilliantly conceived.
Simply put, it’s one of the best movies of the year.
It gets 4 stars out of 5.