Manchester by the Sea

Directed By: Kenneth Lonergan

Starring: Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, Gretchen Mol, Lucas Hedges, and Matthew Broderick

We're starting to get a little deeper into awards season, and we're increasingly seeing studios bring out the big guns.  Enter Amazon Studios with Manchester by the Sea.  Incredibly lucky to have won the bidding on writer-director Kenneth Lonergan's latest feature instead of Nate Parker's directorial debut The Birth of a Nation at the Sundance Film Festival way back in January, Amazon is in a terrific position with probably its biggest feature film to date.  While it doesn't address America's dangerous ignorance of its own history, Manchester by the Sea addresses tragedy and grief in the most personal of ways.  Though it seems like a melodrama in Massachusetts about a bunch of white males up in New England without a drop of diversity in the cast, it's something much more personal and relatable.  I'm sure it will have you reflecting on times when you've faced similar personal challenges.  Simply put, Amazon and Lonergan really have a winner here with Manchester by the Sea.  To make things more interesting, this surefire Oscar contender was produced by a black woman by the name of Kimberly Steward.

A Manchester native, Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) has exiled himself from his hometown and everyone he's known.  Working as a janitor in Boston and maintaining four apartment buildings, Lee lives anything but an extraordinary life.  Though he's generally quiet and subdued, he does have a sharp tongue and lashes out at testy residents to his own detriment.  When his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler), who suffers from congestive heart failure, ends up in the hospital, Lee rushes back up to Manchester to check on his brother.  He doesn't make it in time.  With Joe's passing, he decides to spend the week in his hometown to put his brother's affairs in order.  Having to inform his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) of the news, Lee has the hardest of challenges to tackle.  Little does he know what lies in store for him, namely that he is to be the trustee of his brother's estate and the guardian for Patrick.  Meanwhile, Lee confronts his personal demons and his past life in Manchester with his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams).

A gut punch that really taps into the human element of cinema in a way that most recent films have failed to do, Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester by the Sea is an emotional rollercoaster that feels pretty familiar to anyone who has simply lived.  The human element here cannot be overstated.  As you watch Lonergan delve deeper into this character study, you'll also realize that this is a film that gradually and subtly takes us through the stages of grief and how people respond to death and tragedy in drastically different ways.  Manchester by the Sea is not the most fun you'll have in the dark of a theater these days, but it is the realest thing you'll see.  Even so, it manages to find humor in the darkest of moments in the film, something to which anyone's been through grief can relate.  Some of the best humor and laughter bubble up at the worst times in our lives.  It just speaks to how much Lonergan immersed his audience in the Chandler family crisis.

Lonergan employs a number of cinematic devices to pull off Manchester by the Sea, but two stand out the most.  First, he uses the melodic, operatic selections composed by Lesley Barber to heighten and accentuate pivotal moments of the film.  In combination with this, Lonergan also pulls old jazz tunes out of the vault from the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and the Ink Spots ("I'm Beginning to See the Light") to contrast with and energize what might otherwise be bland scenes in which we delve further into the quirks and ticks of our two lead characters.  Second, Lonergan effectively uses pacing — of both dialogue and the flow of information to the moviegoer — to build the drama throughout the film.  In a character study in which many of the characters are facing a plague of emotions, pacing each and every scene pitch perfectly to let a groundswell of these emotions happen naturally is absolutely crucial.  Nothing feels forced or unnatural, and that just adds to the realness of the film.

The performances in Manchester by the Sea are second to none.  First and foremost, Casey Affleck steps into the big leagues as the introverted Lee Chandler.  He's been on the scene since the days of Good Will Hunting nearly two decades ago, but we've never seen him quite like this.  In a performance that is both raw and real, Affleck wages war with his character's personal demons and tragic past.  The prospect of moving back to Manchester to put the pieces back together in the Chandler family requires him to reopen old wounds.  In doing so, Affleck deftly and potently takes his character through a panoply of emotions.  Even more impressive, it's not the things Affleck says that take his performance to the next level, it's what's not said.  It's a tour de force performance and a surefire Oscar contender (if not winner).  For his part as Lee's nephew Patrick, young actor Lucas Hedges turns in a strong, nuanced performance as well as this kid fighting through grief by continuing with routine and spending time with friends and family despite his loner uncle hovering.  Finally, Michelle Williams steals some scenes in the limited time she has on screen as Lee's feisty and highly emotional ex-wife Randi.

All in all, Manchester by the Sea is an incredible and moving cinematic experience.  There's no doubt that we'll all be hearing more about it in the coming months.  This outstanding piece of cinema from director Kenneth Lonergan features a series of flawed characters all going through their own journey with grief, and it's utterly gripping to watch.  Manchester by the Sea gets a sober rating.  Don't miss this one!