Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) has lived off of the family grid following a personal tragedy years before when he receives the news that his older brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), has died of a heart attack. He returns home to make the funeral arrangements and the reading of Joe’s will, thinking that he will simply return to his solitary life. But, Lee is not prepared when he is named guardian for his teenage nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), in “Manchester by the Sea.”
This is writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s third time out of the gate behind the camera and, with his moving family drama, he shows that he knows his way around a cast, crew and screenplay (which he wrote for all three of his films). His latest outing stars Casey Affleck as Lee, a very troubled man, obviously, but we do not know why. Then, he gets the phone call about Joe.
Once Lee makes the drive from Quincy to Manchester, it becomes apparent that his life was, once, quite complicated and tragic. What happened to Lee and how it shaped his life later will be up to you to find out when you see (which I recommend) “Manchester by the Sea.”
This is an actor’s film and the cast of “Manchester” is a wealth of talent. Casey Affleck is solid as the troubled (for good reason) Lee and he holds the center as a first among equals (though he is out New England accented by all of those around him). Lucas Hedges, as Patrick, is terrific as a teen whose life is suddenly in turmoil who wants Lee to stay as his legal guardian and a bond, despite Lee’s protestations, forms between the two.
The rest of the cast all give fine performances. Michelle Williams, as Lee’s ex, Randi, as always, gives a fully developed performance of sadness and regret that mirror Lee’s. Kyle Chandler, as Lee’s brother Joe, is only seen in flashback but the character’s presence permeates his brother’s life. The rest of the supporting cast help to make “Manchester” a real town where everyone knows everyone else’s business – and cares.
New Englanders, with both the dialog and locations, will feel at home in this small town saga, captured skillfully by cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes. The rest of the world will get a good, honest idea about the denizens of the titular town and their not always easy lives. I, personally, felt at home watching “Manchester by the Sea.” I give it a B+.
Years ago, Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) left his whole life behind, moving from Cape Ann to Quincy on Boston's South Shore. He lives in a basement room, working as the janitor for several apartments, spending his solitary evenings in a local bar. But when he gets word that his older brother's congestive heart failure has him at the brink of death, he heads back to his home town, "Manchester by the Sea."
Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan ("You Can Count On Me," "Margaret") is unparalleled in his ability to build characters out of the variances of human nature shaped by experience and environment. His latest, a quietly powerful examination of grief healed by a brothers' bond, is not only an emotional character-driven drama, but the best realization of Massachusetts on screen since "The Friends of Eddie Coyle."
The film begins with a flashback from the main narrative as Joe (Kyle Chandler) pilots his fishing boat, the Claudia Maria, out of Manchester harbor, Lee comically attempting to get his nephew to admit he's just plain better at certain things than Patrick's dad. But the next Lee we meet years later is withdrawn, putting up with the various demands of tenants (one of the many places Lonergan injects some much needed humor). It becomes evident this is a man who doesn't care what happens to him, biding time eking out an existence.
Lee arrives at the hospital too late. Joe's business partner George (C.J. Wilson, "The Intern") offers to begin making arrangement as Lee's first thought is to get to the now 15 year-old Patrick (Lucas Hedges) to deliver the news himself. He picks up the boy at his hockey practice, the two returning to the home Joe shared with his son. Unlike his uncle, Patrick wants people around, asking if his girlfriend can stay over. The next day Lee is stunned to learn Joe has designated him as Patrick's guardian and has set aside funds for Lee to move back home. Lee rejects the idea, first appealing to George and his wife to take the boy, then planning on bringing him back to Quincy, a plan that angers his nephew, who intends to carry on the family's fishing legacy.
Joe's funeral raises Lee's ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams), who calls to make sure her presence will be welcome. They meet awkwardly, Randi's new husband quite the counterpart to Lee. There will be continued trauma, Patrick reacting severely to the news that his dad's body will be kept in a freezer until a spring burial, Patrick's admission that he has made contact with his mother (Gretchen Mol) whom he views as an out to Lee's arrangements, Lee's attempts at finding local work going nowhere as locals whisper behind his back.
Lonergan foreshadows Lee's tragedy in another flashback to the day of that fishing trip, but he maintains the mystery of just what happened until the film's shattering midpoint. His screenplay is beautifully constructed, moving forward while gradually filling in blanks with peeks at the past. Everyday events, like the maintenance of boat's motor or an invitation to lunch, take on major significance. Shifts in time, like the passage of winter to spring, and place, like Lee's abandonment of Boston's North Shore for its South (a divide Massachusetts residents, at least, will know is distinct) have meaning. This is storytelling at its best. (The basic story was originally conceived by producer Matt Damon, who kicked it around with his "The Adjustment Bureau" producer Chris Moore and costar John Krasinski as a vehicle for his directorial debut.)
The ensemble cast is stellar, the notoriously difficult Massachusetts accent mastered by all (Affleck, a Cambridge native, underplays it, a choice that could be attributable to his character's years in Quincy). Affleck makes Lee's shut down pain palpable in the way he hangs onto a grocery bag or drifts on the sidelines of a funeral gathering, a distinct difference to the man we see in the past and the man who emerges. Young Hedges, holds his own with his costar, the fight to Lee's flight, but it is Kyle Chandler who stayed with me well after the film ended, creating such a rich character with scant screen time, he haunts the entire film (one wonders how the actor feels seeing his own last name on his character's headstone). Equally strong is Williams, whose penultimate scene with Affleck is devastating. The film also features Lonergan regular Matthew Broderick as the evangelical Christian who married Joe's ex-wife. Many local residents, like Manchester's police department, play themselves.
The production captures the blue collar enclaves of Manchester's fishing community within its wealthier surroundings, Jody Lee Lipes' ("Trainwreck," "Ballet 422") cinematography crisp and unshowy. "Manchester by the Sea" is cinematic perfection.
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