Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Movie Review: "Manchester by the Sea"

Can we ever outrun the burdens of our past, or are we stuck carrying them for the rest of our lives? Does a person who makes a terrible mistake deserve another chance, or should they be doomed to a life of misery? At times brutal, at times hopeful, Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester by the Sea attempts to answer those questions.

Lee Chandler (a mesmerizing Casey Affleck) is a custodian for several apartment buildings. He's clearly good at his job, although it is also evident that he isn't challenged much, and is mostly going through the motions. He is well-liked by some tenants, treated as invisible by others, and still others get on his last nerve, and he's not afraid to tell them what he thinks, even if he shouldn't. But there has to be a reason a seemingly intelligent, good-looking man would be willing to live a near-monastic existence, punctuated only by bouts of drunken bar fights.

One day he gets a call he has been somewhat expecting: his brother (Kyle Chandler), who had been suffering from congestive heart failure for a number of years, has died. Lee has to head back to his hometown of Manchester, MA, to tell his teenage nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) about his father's death and handle the arrangements. It's not long before being back in Manchester starts to wear on him—people talk about him behind his back, stare at him, and many can't seem to hide their disdain. That, coupled with having to essentially serve as Patrick's chauffeur (and pimp, of sorts), is more than he can handle given the grief he is feeling.

When Lee finds out that his brother named him Patrick's legal guardian and made arrangements for him to move back to Manchester, there is nothing he wants less. He tries to find someone else willing to care for Patrick, and, failing that, starts planning to move Patrick back to Boston, where he has been living. But Patrick doesn't understand why Lee can't just stay in Manchester, given he didn't have much of a job or a life back in Boston. After all, why should Patrick, who has his whole life in Manchester, be uprooted?

Having to encounter his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams) is even harder than he expected. Lee knows he has to figure things out for Patrick's sake and his own, but he doesn't know if he can handle being in Manchester much longer without completely falling apart. And he doesn't know if he's really ready to face the reason he left years ago, even if he needs to for Patrick's sake.

Manchester by the Sea is a really bleak, sad movie at times, but there are glimmers of hope and humor. It is the performances, however, which save the movie from sinking into complete depression. Affleck, who has been known of late more for his off-screen antics and rants than his acting, gives the performance of his career in this movie. Lee is a man who has being seriously suffering, and he clearly thinks he doesn't deserve anything better. Affleck's portrayal treads the fine line between melancholy and stoicism, but you can see in his eyes and his gestures just how much he is hurting.

Williams' role is a fairly small but tremendously pivotal one. There is one scene where Randi and Lee run into each other on the street that both broke my heart and took my breath away. She is so fantastic in this small role; it seems really unfortunate that it appears the Oscars will have her competing in the same category as Viola Davis who, while utterly fantastic in Fences, appears in 95 percent of that movie.

This is the first time I've seen Hedges, who has mostly tiny movie and television roles to his credit. He does a great job here. Patrick is cocky but vulnerable, selfish but still sensitive. While at first he seems like a young man who expects everything to go his way, as the movie unfolds, you realize that he, too, has a lot of hidden hurt inside him.

Lonergan has really created a fantastic film, despite its heaviness. And while this is certainly an emotionally weighty movie, there is much that transpires in the words not said, as well as the things the characters say to each other. It is truly an Oscar-worthy film; both Affleck and Williams deserve to win, although the former is far more likely than the latter, and I'd love to see Hedges included among the Best Supporting Actor nominees.

I wouldn't see this if you're feeling emotionally vulnerable, but see it. These performances, this story may break your heart, but hopefully you'll realize everyone deserves at least a little hope.


  1. I had no idea what this was about until now... But I think I have to watch this film.

  2. Yeah, it's brutal, but the acting is simply extraordinary.