THE TRUTH HURTS
Manchester By The Sea
Review by Paul Preston
Kenneth Lonergan’s deeply truthful drama, Manchester by the Sea is one of the year’s best films. It’s one of those movies that allows its characters to be so honest, you realize that most movies released today are filtering their characters through a layer of artifice that makes them feel presented to the audience. As if we couldn’t take it. As if the filmmakers said, “we should present the character like this, that way the audience feels like this”. Lonergan writes and directs with much more confidence in us, and the result as a viewer is highly satisfying and highly emotional.
Casey Affleck has always been a charismatic actor, but this is new ground for him, exploring new depths as a Boston janitor who realizes he’s become sole guardian of his teenage nephew. It’s well-established early on that Affleck’s Lee Chandler probably isn’t the right man for the job. He keeps to himself, seemingly bottling up all his emotion, until he lets it out at unfortunate moments in bar fights. Not exactly guardian material. The adult-thrust-into-parental-mode trope is a well-worn one, often with the adult stuck in man-child mode while trying to adjust to responsibility. This is different. You can tell there’s something else at play when Affleck arrives at his nephew’s school for the first time and the school’s hockey coach says, “That’s Lee Chandler? THE Lee Chandler?”. There’s a past everyone seems to know about but us.
That past gets revealed and it’s one that makes you certainly understand why Chandler spends his life bottling it up. But what follows isn’t drama of the highest order, but instead (and I’m using this word again) a TRUTHFUL sequence of events.
Let me give you an example. Lee and his nephew Patrick struggle to get along, mostly with Patrick talking too much, angry that he’s in the position of having to have Lee as a guardian, and Lee shrugging off a meaningful relationship with him. At one point they pull up to the side of the road for an appointment and discuss quickly whether they should get out and go in the building (I think it was a school). Patrick says, “Let’s go”, as in let’s go in, Lee mishears it for “Let’s go”, as in let’s go home, so he starts driving as Patrick tries to exit the vehicle. The two then explode at each other for fifteen seconds. This is such a real moment. They’re not talking about what they should be talking about, but when given the chance to yell about something insigificant, that passion that was brimming blows up over something meaningless. This happens in real life all the time and is expertly detailed in this scene.
There’s another moment that’s the crux of the film. Michelle Williams plays Lee’s ex-wife Randi. A late-movie encounter between Lee and Randi provides some of the most moving moments in any film this year. What’s said, what’s not being said both overlap in a delicate balance. The writing is incisive and thoughtful and you can tell Lonergan let these two actors just bring the goods – they DO. If you’ve seen Blue Valentine or My Week With Marilyn, you know Williams is no joke. Lucas Hedges as Patrick also holds his own among the two fantastic leads, as does the always-solid Kyle Chandler as Lee’s brother Joe.
One more key asset to Manchester by the Sea is doing the familiar uniquely. Scenes as simple as telling someone a loved one has died play out from a distance that makes the scene compelling in new ways. Major moments happen while characters are just trying to remember where they parked, and devastating events are relayed without forgoeing the day-to-day minutia that accompanies them. Life goes on, even if it’s a struggle.
And lastly, just so you don’t feel like you’re in for a bummer of a time, for all of Manchester’s dramatic wins, the film hits the funny bone with equal success. Awkward and honest moments are allowed to breathe and hit their mark.
It bears repeating one more time, the truthfulness on display in Manchester by the Sea is so refreshing and rewarding, it will take you off guard in all the best ways, right up to Lee’s final summation of his character’s state of mind. It’s so plainly delivered, without fanfare, you forget that that’s how it would be if you were sitting across the table from him. Anything else would be showy, and Lonergan wisely sidesteps playing showman every chance he gets, and his characters are better for it.
Directed by: Kenneth Lonergan
Release Date: November 18, 2016
Run Time: 137 Minutes
Distributor: Roadside Attractions