In a filmmaking career that spans 16-years, Manchester by the Sea is only the third feature by playwright-turned-writer/director Kenneth Lonergan. Coming out of the well-documented complications of his last feature (2011’s Margaret, which was originally due for release in 2007), Manchester by the Sea focuses on Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), a janitor working in Quincy, Massachusetts. Lee is quiet, reserved, brash, largely uncommunicative and with a few rounds of alcohol, a barroom brawler. Down-and-out of life, Chandler is summoned to Manchester-by-the-Sea after learning of the death of his brother (Kyle Chandler), who died of a serious heart condition diagnosed years earlier. Informing his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) of his father’s death, Lee is forced to temporarily move into Joe’s home to look after Patrick, oversee his brother’s funeral arrangements and administer his brother’s will.
Upon his hesitant move to Manchester-by-the-Sea, Lee is forced to confront the emotional matters of his past that he has long wished to create a sizable physical and emotional distance from including his dissolved marriage to Randi (Michelle Williams) and the circumstances that led to the end of their family and relationship. Such circumstances have created the basis of the beaten, emotionally-succumbed man who can’t even engage in the smallest of small talk conversation. Meanwhile, he is pushed into the everyday teenage trials of his nephew Patrick, a crafty and quippy smart aleck with his own set of crosses to bear including the death of his father, his distant relationship with his mother and the prospect of having his entire life turned upside down as Lee becomes entrusted with his guardianship.
These tense family dynamics play out in a flashback structure pitting unfortunate present circumstances against the backdrop of their tragic beginnings. Ultimately, this makes for a compelling “working class” drama that stylistically harkens back to Lonergan’s first feature, the Oscar-nominated You Can Count on Me (2000), an unsung gem that allowed the talents of Laura Linney to shine through while giving an early glimpse of Mark Ruffalo. As a film, Manchester by the Sea is understated, using little of the flashy cinematic trickery of many of its fellow contenders in the Oscar 2016-2017 season. Instead, it focuses purely upon its drama with only its editing prowess to speak for it.
However, the film is driven by three stellar performances. Casey Affleck, while distant and emotionally ungiving, adeptly shows the cracks forming in the surface with the dramatic subtext making perfectly clear why. In true supporting fashion, Lucas Hedges helps to layer out Affleck’s stoic outer shell with touches of humor, sadness and teen angst. Michelle Williams, in a somewhat in-and-out role, gives a rather tearful performance throughout but one that is perfectly understood, always affecting and providing in even more layers for Affleck’s lead role. Kenneth Lonergan delivers yet another unexpected gem that shows his penchant for text, and creating a sparse cinematic atmosphere in which his actors can play up the drama of the text to an overwhelming and substantive whole.