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Manchester by the Sea Review

December 20, 2016

Halfway through Manchester by the Sea, I knew a perfect film unfolded before my eyes. Then, writer-director Kenneth Lonergan unveiled an unexpected revelation to the audience and tears flowed throughout the theater. The film became more than a technical masterpiece to me then. Lonergan crafted one of the most surprising and utterly devastating scenes I have seen. Like the rest of this masterful film, an extremely nuanced moment made even more powerful and dramatic because of its bare-bones storytelling. After Lonergan’s film concluded and the credits rolled, the audience remained without a single dry eye, left with an undeniable masterpiece of cinema before them.

Lonergan’s latest film tells the story of Lee Chandler, played by Casey Affleck, in one of the great performances of this year. A lonely, divorced, and emotionally confused custodian, Chandler seems to possess a borderline case of alcoholism. Lee’s brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), dies from cardiac arrest, leaving Lee legally responsible for his brother’s teenage son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Manchester by the Sea plays out like a slightly more entertaining version of reality. We see ordinary, everyday moments between Patrick and Lee struggling  to understand their bizarre and strained relationship. This film portrays a powerful fable on fatherhood and the responsibilities it entails.

Still of Michelle Williams and Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea. Courtesy of Indiewire.

At the center of Lonergan’s film is withdrawn and ambiguous protagonist Lee Chandler. This character seems specially made for Affleck; He channels his soft-spoken acting style into a character that feels like an extension of himself . Affleck expresses genuine feelings and heartbreak in this film. He can be absolutely hilarious, delivering biting dialogue to the people he works for, or absolutely heartbreaking, demonstrated in the film’s climactic revelation. Affleck’s reserve stays constant throughout the film, but when he displays anger or heartbreak, the audience feels devastated. His angry bar brawls, his quiet breakdowns, it all crafts one of cinema’s most memorable characters.

An important aspect of the film’s success includes a strong supporting turn from Lucas Hedges. He portrays Patrick, the newly-fatherless 16-year-old Lee must take care of. Hedges and Affleck’s acting go hand-in-hand in giving the film its emotional core. Patrick, a seemingly unlikable character, veers away from becoming the kind of irresponsible teenager that audiences generally hate. Hedges performance transforms Patrick into a complex and confused character, a teenager the audience can identify with despite his flaws. Patrick’s faults feel like an extension of his emotional turmoil surrounding his father’s death. When Patrick suffers a sudden panic attack, Hedges makes it utterly convincing and realistic. I have never seen a panic attack depicted more realistically than in this film. I have been familiar with Hedges’ acting since his 2012 debut in Moonrise Kingdom, and it is surprising to see how much he has evolved.

The relationship between Patrick and Lee serves as the centerpiece of Manchester by the Sea, and both the actors and Kenneth Lonergan’s direction and screenplay make it the film’s highlight. It is a relationship that is devoid of cliche and sentimentality, and this works to the film’s advantage; Realism makes the characters’ emotional development unexpected and convincing. There are no scenes of soul-bearing dialogue, no big revelations of the character’s feelings towards each other. Lonergan instead focuses on simple scenes of father-son interaction, including personal musings on the future and awkward conversations about sex and relationships. Interactions between Patrick and Lee walk the line between comedy and drama, which adds realism and poignancy to the film.

Kenneth Lonergan is the invisible force behind Manchester by the Sea’s success. His direction is unstylized and almost mundane, but finds depth in ordinary people and their lives. Lonergan’s film is slow and patient, a quality that is rewarding to attentive viewers. He allows his actors to speak for themselves, and the audience sees his characters brought to life. Music pierces the film’s most beautiful moments, highlighting the grace in dilapidated houses and expansive coastal vistas with classical compositions. Lonergan is obviously a perfectionist in how he crafts his films, and it shows. He maintains a deliberate pace that allows his film to slowly unveil itself to his audience. Lonergan is a master at developing cinema that displays expert craftsmanship and evolving depth.

Still of Patrick Hedges and Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea. Courtesy of CBS News.

I could go into a lengthy analysis of this film, and I am extremely tempted to give an examination of its themes of fatherhood, redemption, and atonement. It is a film of extraordinary depth, but in order to elaborate on this, I would have to reveal the film’s greatest, saddest moment. I do not wish to divulge this section because the scene’s effect hinges on its unexpectedness. The audience learns about Lee’s past, and it is devastating and defines his character in the film. All I will say is that viewers should be warned that it is an extremely sad moment. Be prepared for tears; Even the most thick-skinned of audiences will find themselves affected.

While Manchester by the Sea is incredibly sad, it is also hilarious. It is a comedy of familiarity, with situations and dialogue that are so recognizable and relatable that it makes the audience laugh from the film’s purity of reality. An example of this is when Lee can’t remember where he parked his car, and a dramatic conversation is played out during Lee and Patrick’s comedic search for the missing car. This scene feels incredibly true to life; Who hasn’t forgotten where they parked their car? It is Lonergan’s recognition of mundane events that occur in life’s dramatic moments that add depth and comedy to his film. Life is dreadfully serious in the moment; Only in hindsight does it become comedic, and the film plays on this.

Manchester by the Sea is technically flawless, emotionally involving, and boasts several outstanding performances. However, Casey Affleck and his complex portrayal of Lee Chandler is what remains with the audience after the credits roll. Affleck has created one of the most realistic characters to be committed to film; This is the kind of performance that defines a career. Lee Chandler stays with the audience long after they leave the theater, mainly because of his ambiguous nature. Even while writing this review, Affleck’s pained admission at the end of the film reverberates in my ears, “I can’t beat it. I can’t beat it.” Manchester by the Sea is a powerful film that I will never forget.

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