Review: “Manchester by the Sea”

Post by Ryan Pumroy

When hosting Saturday Night Live last week, Casey Affleck joked Manchester by the Sea is “funny…but just crushingly sad.” It’s an apt description of this excellent film, and it’s one of the year’s best.

We open on a boat. A boy is fishing. His uncle is doing a mixture of helping and teasing. The father drives. The men joke about sharks in the Atlantic waters.

We realize this is the past. The plot jumps between past and present throughout. Cut to the present, about six years later.

Casey Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a reserved and brooding handyman for an apartment complex in Quincy, MA, a suburb of Boston. We see a montage of his daily routine: shoveling snow, taking out the garbage, unclogging toilets, going to the bar, getting in a fight. (I can’t help but be reminded of Sisyphus pushing the boulder.)

One day, Lee gets a call. His brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), is dying from congestive heart failure. He makes the journey from Quincy up to Manchester, forced to return to his family, community, and troubled past. Lee arrives too late – his brother is dead. Now he must handle the arrangements. The film’s driving question is what will happen with Patrick (Lucas Hedges), Joe’s son and Lee’s nephew. Unexpectedly, Lee becomes his nephew’s guardian.

The central conflict is that 16-year-old Patrick wants to stay in Manchester, while Uncle Lee wants to leave as soon as possible. Patrick has two girlfriends, a band, his dad’s boat, and Manchester is, after all, home. Lee is haunted by a tragedy in his past, reinforced by his memory and by the gazes of his fellow Manchesterites, which range from sympathetic to judgmental.

Manchester by the Sea is unflinching; raw, graceful, and never showy or over-the-top.  Lonergan delivers a somber slice of life – a tale of broken hearts – one that captures the range of emotions and feelings in life and in relationships. Scenes will break your heart, others make you laugh, and some are painfully awkward. But that’s what life is: complex, messy, and ambiguous.

Frankly, it’s beautiful.

Manchester has five Golden Globe nominations: best picture – drama, best leading actor (Affleck), best supporting actress (Michelle Williams, playing Lee’s ex-wife Randi), best director and best screenplay (both Kenneth Lonergan). We will see how it fares at the awards ceremony in a little over two weeks.

The film is also (at least for now) the frontrunner for Best Picture at the 2017 Academy Awards, with Affleck the frontrunner for Best Actor. We’ll know more when the Oscar nominations are announced on January 24,  2017.

The nods and praise are deserved. One snub from the Globes is Lucas Hedges for Best Supporting Actor in a Film. His performance in integral to Manchester, and he really is terrific. Hopefully the Academy recognizes him.

Manchester by the Sea (2016)
Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan
Starring Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, and Lucas Hedges
137 minutes
Rated R
Distributed by Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions
United States

 

Ryan Pumroy is an advisor and occasional instructor in the Department of Communication at Northern Illinois University. He is the co-founder and co-editor-in-chief of The 2 Shot. His other writings have appeared in In Media Res and The Journal of Popular Culture.

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