Manchester by the Sea (2016)

We’re heading into Oscar season now, and everybody’s raving about Manchester by the Sea, written and directed by Gangs of New York screenwriter Kenneth Lonergan and starring Casey Affleck, apparently the current favourite to take home the gong for Best Actor next month (he already won at the Golden Globes).

I just watched it, and man, it’s quite an experience. Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a loner working as a handyman-slash-janitor in Boston who is one day forced to return to his hometown following the passing of his brother, Joseph (Kyle Chandler). And unbeknownst to Lee, he was named in the will as the guardian of his nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges, who is up for Best Supporting Actor), a regular but popular 16-year-old kid into sports and girls. They used to be close until Lee left, and must now find a way to get through this tragedy together.

The film features multiple flashbacks that come without warning — there are no captions or camera effects to let you know the time frame — but the storytelling is smart enough that it doesn’t take long to figure out what time period it is in. These flashbacks are important, because they help set up the characters and let you know who they are and who they used to be, and most importantly, reveal why Lee left his hometown and became the way he is. There’s also a surprising amount of subplots and minor characters played by recognizable names, including Michelle Williams (nominated for Best Supporting Actress), Gretchen Mol, Tate Donovan and Matthew Broderick.

Manchester by the Sea is not for everyone. Regular moviegoers might find the pacing a little slow, and damn does it have moments of incredible sadness will that threaten to rip your heart out. I have a heart of stone and I was very close to tears on numerous occasions. Yet, despite all the melancholy, there is a surprisingly amount of humour and tender moments, largely fleshed out by the amazing chemistry and performances of Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges. The banter between the two feels authentic and heartfelt, even though they don’t always say what’s on their minds. Kudos also to Lonergan (up for Best Director and Best Screenplay) for being able to manage the tone of the film just right, especially by making the humour an organic part of the relationships and dialogue rather than something forced in to provide levity.

In fact, much of the film and Affleck’s masterful performance plays out in this very nuanced way. It’s a very controlled portrayal, one in which silence and facial expressions convey much more than words. It’s incredible how emotional the film is when there aren’t really any “Oscar-clip” scenes of people bawling and screaming and acting all hysterical. I haven’t seen all of the Best Actor performances yet, but Affleck definitely would be deserving — sexual harassment allegations controversy in real life notwithstanding — if he were to take home the award. Likewise for Hedges, who has come out of nowhere to snag just about every nomination there is for his performance in the film. Michelle Williams is also very good as always, but I honestly think she wasn’t in enough scenes to warrant a nomination this time around.

While acknowledging that some people would not like it (especially how it doesn’t tie things up neatly for the audience), I personally think Manchester by the Sea is a great film — about family, sorrow, regret, self-loathing and forgiveness. It’s heartbreaking but tinged with hope and littered with the small joys of life, and I love the depth and subtlety of not only the performances but also the dialogue, direction and storytelling. It’s easily one of the best dramas of the year.

4.5 stars out of 5

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