One would think that a story about a dead father and the uncle who takes guardianship over his teenage son would be a real downer. And while it certainly has its moments of incredible pathos that is oh-so beautifully executed, Manchester By the Sea is hardly a one trick pony. It’s surprisingly loaded with subtle funnies and character quirks that balance out its heavy heart.
Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester follows Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), a loner janitor working odd handyman jobs in Quincy, Mass. When his brother passes, Lee heads up to Manchester-by-the-Sea to tie up his affairs, one of which is unbeknownst to him: he is unknowingly set to become his teenage nephew Patrick’s (Lucas Hedges) guardian.
The movie alternates its focus between Patrick’s life and needs, and Lee’s reasons for being the closed off curmudgeon that he is. Lee is hesitant give up his life in Quincy (what remains of it, that is) for reasons that unfold throughout, while Patrick refuses to give up his two girlfriends and band to live with his custodian uncle south of Boston.
Michelle Williams supports as Lee’s ex-wife and an important puzzle piece as to why Lee has become what he has. This poignant plot point needs to remain a mystery, but the ex-couple’s encounter years later (photo above) was one of the most tender and tear-jerking scenes I’ve seen of late, as Lee desperately wants to come to terms with his past, but is too bottled up to have the breakthrough he needs. Affleck and Williams show just how top-notch they are here.
With all the weighty, real-life issues unraveling around them, it’s comforting for viewers to get laughs from the film – with Lee learning how to deal with a teen kid and Patrick pushing back in dopey teen ways. It’s a jovial tennis match between Affleck and Hedges, which helps the movie avoid getting bogged down by its own gravity. Lonergan’s script picks and chooses its battles, inserting far more humor than expected, while also carefully choosing when to go for the jugular. (When it wants you to feel something, watch out.) Its ebbs and flows hit the screen naturally, gracefully…perfectly timed, acted and directed without ever losing its sense of realism.
I’d love to see Manchester By the Sea snag some well-deserved acting nods for Affleck, Williams and maybe even Hedges. While Williams and Hedges may be longshots for the nom (and probably even more so for the win), Affleck has delivered his best performance yet, finally proving to any cynics that he is definitively the better Affleck, at least in terms of acting. In a film that forces his character to come to terms with past and current tragedies and his emotional repression, Affleck walks a tightrope between Lee’s yearning to express and his bottled unease. He makes the flawed, blunder-prone Lee innately human…someone you want to see heal. Aside from the many, many things the film does right, Affleck’s control over Lee’s shaky disposition is award-worthy on its own. Grade: A