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Review: Manchester By The Sea

November 25, 2016

By John Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

manchester-by-the-sea-posterDirected by Kenneth Lonergan, only his third film in sixteen years following You Can Count On Me and MargaretManchester By The Sea is a masterful and beautifully written look at how grief affects different people, anchored by outstanding performances and an impressive handling of tone.

Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is a working class janitor in Boston, spending his days doing odd jobs for people in the apartment buildings where he works, and his nights at the bar drinking and sometimes getting into fights.

But when he gets the call that his beloved older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has died from cardiac arrest, leaving behind his teenage son Patrick (Lucas Hedges), Lee goes back to his small seaside Massachusetts hometown to plan the funeral.

Being back in his old town, and going through the arduous process of estate planning, Lee is forced to confront the pain of his past and the ex-wife (Michelle Williams) he left behind.  What he also discovers is that he has been appointed legal guardian to his nephew.  But Lee isn’t equipped to be a father figure, and Patrick is a popular high schooler who isn’t interested in having his life uprooted, masking the pain of losing his father by acting upbeat and busying himself with hockey practise, while also juggling two different girlfriends.

Lee doesn’t present himself as a patriarchal figure to Patrick, and in many ways they interact more like two guys hanging out.  For example, Lee allows his nephew to have girls spend the night, something a father wouldn’t do.  Through this, Manchester By The Sea offers a brilliantly observed portrait of two men both grieving in their own ways, trying to give each other space while also allowing themselves to admit they need someone to lean on.  One of the film’s most interesting stylistic choices comes when Lee breaks the news to Patrick about his father’s death.  The scene takes place at hockey practise and is framed at a distance from across the rink, with their interaction being observed by his teammates.

At 137 minutes, Manchester By The Sea is a film that allows us to spend time with its characters, who feel like people we could really know, finding beauty in the details of their interactions and capturing many little moments that ring true to real life.  The story is seamlessly told in a dual narrative, switching between flashbacks and current day, allowing the past and present to flow freely into each other as we slowly uncover Lee’s backstory and how it has effected him.  It’s a fascinatingly non-linear approach.

The film is centred around Casey Affleck’s haunted and deeply moving performance as a broken man trying to reconcile his tragic past with his new role as a guardian, and it’s nuanced and brilliantly understated work that pushes the actor to a whole new level.  Lucas Hedges is also excellent, developing a great rapport with Casey Affleck, and making the familial bond between their characters compelling to watch.  Michelle Williams brings added emotional weight to her supporting role, with her standout scene being an emotional confrontation later in the film.

This is an absorbing and richly textured character drama, that mixes scenes of devastating emotion with instances of tension-breaking humour, finding its rich nuances and most powerful moments through the way it so beautifully observes the interactions between its characters.

Manchester By The Sea is now playing in limited release at Varsity Cinemas in Toronto.

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