Simply put, Manchester by the Sea is not just the best film I’ve seen all year, it is destined to be one of the best films of this decade. Kenneth Lonergan writes and directs this drama, which is basically an insight into the human condition when us humans are at our worst. And by worst, I don’t mean despicable, inhumane behavior, but the worst of circumstances. This is just a case where I just sat, watched, and was dazzled by the story that the film had to tell, the characters that were created, and the acting on parade.
The basic story follows Lee Chandler, played by Casey Affleck, who’s a down-and-out janitor in Boston. He is suddenly hit with a death in the family: his brother, Joe, who lives in his hometown of Manchester, thus the title. He is called there to take care of matters with Joe’s teen-aged son, Patrick. Once we get there, the story just follows the two as they try and put the pieces back together and figure out what the hell they are to do with Patrick, who’s at home in Manchester, but with Lee being his new guardian at Joe’s request, he must decide whether to keep him there, take him with him to Boston, or turn over custody of the child to someone else. In the course of the movie, we also get a bit of backstory around Lee’s past and why living in Manchester might be a poor choice for him.
So yes, I already mentioned this is the best film I’ve seen so far from 2016, and that’s in no small part due to the outstanding cast: Casey Affleck delivers his best performance yet as Lee, showing both a defeated man who’s left to his own devices after a turbulent marriage, and a wanna-be guardian to Patrick, played perfectly by Lucas Hedges. Obviously life for Patrick is pretty crappy with the events depicted in the film, and without going into his whole subplot, Lonergan finds time to show some lighter aspects of his life and we see this is a kid that, sure, just lost his father, but still has a lot to live for, the polar opposite as his uncle Lee, who’s basically just getting by. There’s also Michelle Williams, Lee’s ex-wife Randi. While she’s not a central character in the film, and her screen-time is pretty limited, she still makes a strong impression. Lonergan has been a gifted writer/director who’s talents have been underappreciated in the past, and he just knows how to write people. At no point while watching did I get the impression I was watching a scene that was first written on page by a screenwriter, then rehearsed by the actors, then shot on film, then edited into a computer before being illuminated onto the screen via projector. It felt like a genuine, real-life situation that could be happening at any time anywhere. It’s not just one of the best screenplays of the year, but perhaps the best crafted screenplay since Aaron Sorkin’s work on The Social Network (2010). Also a note on the film: for me it was reminiscent of two 1980’s classics. The back and forth we get between Affleck and Hedges is like Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man (1988), except, you know, one of them isn’t autistic in this film. But if you’ve seen the film, you remember the classic scenes where Cruise and Hoffman go round and round, like the classic underwear scene or the airport scene. Just the way the two bounce off of each other in Manchester by the Sea it was hard not to compare. Then I was also reminded of Sophie’s Choice (1982), where we have a quieter character, or in the case of Manchester as quiet as Affleck could get, and we are left to wonder what happened to make this character this way. Once we do get that scene, the movie instantly changes from a great drama to a tragedy. Seriously, this is my only warning about the film. While the drama and pretty comedic back-and-fourth that goes on makes the film very entertaining and re-watchable, the backstory we get with Lee is devastating and one of the saddest scenes of any movie of the decade, and it forever alters our perception of Lee. Now we understand why he’s a certain way and what’s up with him. Of course I won’t say here what this backstory is, but for those who know, I challenge you not to be moved or affected by this scene.
Really there’s nothing I have to complain about here. Some have said that the film is too long, and sure at over two hours long, it isn’t just something you pop in and sit down and watch. And sure, the content might be painful for some, but I feel like this is a movie that’s meant to be something more than a part of the careers of the filmmakers, but it’s also a film that I might re-watch whenever I have a death in the family. Sure, it shows a lot of tragedy and has some very realistic depictions of human emotion while under that stress, but there’s an enormous heart to the film that at the end of the day balances out what would be deadly depressing material and makes it a great dramatic piece that doesn’t go too comedic or too sad. It’s just the perfect balance, and it’s one that everybody of age should watch.
I am a gigantic movie nerd who spends his free time memorizing Oscar winners and nominees and seeing as many good movies as I can. I have always wanted to write about films, review films, and speculate on films, and hope that this site helps me get a couple of people who can agree or disagree with me.