Few directors are able to make a film that successfully blurs the line between tragedy and comedy, while also maintaining a tone that is unquestionably dramatic. It helps that the film is set during an overcast snowy New England winter; that its set in a working class environment; and has an score that features some heavy pieces, including Albinoni’s classic funeral hit,“Adagio in G Minor.” Director and writer Kenneth Lonergan has seamlessly blended the dramatic with the comic, not only through his direction but also through his well-crafted script. You don’t walk away confused about you they just saw—it’s a definitely a drama, a devastating drama with many moments that capture the clumsiness that add to daily life with humor.
Manchester by the Sea came out of Sundance and Toronto Film Festivals as a favorite and it’s getting the same love at this year’s New York Film Festival. Lonergan directs with careful detail and allows the scenes to run as long as necessary without feeling indulgent, but with enough emotional intensity that it feels honest. The performances possess the same quality of subtle intensity. Casey Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a handyman living in a working class neighborhood of Boston. He’s essentially given up on life after suffering a tragic loss some years earlier. Following the death of his older, more stable brother Joe (Kyle Chandler), Lee learns that is the sole guardian of his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Affleck is the conflicted center of this film and gives a career-high performance that is a case study of quiet restraint, and subtle emotional depth. This is an honest performance that is successful for it’s nuanced and controlled quality, yet it’s not dull or boring—it’s authentic. Lee is ultimately a likable guy, mostly because, although he is very damaged and lonely, he is in need of help, he is a good man who is responsible and does the right thing. Michelle Williams as Lee’s ex-wife delivers one of her most powerful performances in years, despite her too little screen time. In an unforgettable scene later in the film, Williams and Affleck are remarkable and heartbreakingly honest as she is awkwardly tries to talk to Lee about their tragic past, but through polite restraint, Lee is unable to let go and succumbs to avoidance as his only tool. In the hands of any other director this scene would have been a sappy, get-out-your-handkerchief moment, but here it’s a simple, frustrating (you want reach out and help them), and truthful moment. Affleck and Williams handle this scene masterfully.
Another stand out performance comes from Lucas Hedges (Moonrise Kingdom, Grand Budapest Hotel) as Lee’s nephew who finds himself suddenly alone, and at odds with Lee’s desire to take Lucas back to Boston to live until he is of legal age to receive his inheritance. With his teen angst and rampant horniness, he’s the perfect counterpart to Casey’s emotionally muted (yet volatile given enough alcohol) and sexually stalled state. Their relationship is a pleasure—with the right amount of pain—to watch.
Manchester by the Sea, with its Oscar caliber performances, mature writing, masterful direction and a score that—despite coming dangerously close to overpowering the film—effectively enhances the over all tone of the movie, will likely stand out as one of 2016’s best films.
–John David West