Sundance 2016 | You Must See ‘Manchester by the Sea’
In movies you can fall in love with a vampire. In movies you will believe a man can fly. In movies you can do just about any damned thing you want, so it makes a certain degree of sense that films about everyday experiences don’t usually make billions of dollars at the box office. But writer/director Kenneth Lonergan makes real life absolutely riveting. He can turn a conversation about frozen meat into an emotional thrill ride.
Lonergan’s third film, Manchester by the Sea, is a movie about the overwhelming drama behind “stuff.” Teaching a kid to fish, forgetting where you parked your car, calling a funeral home, these are things that don’t usually wind up in anybody’s biography. Manchester by the Sea uses them to distract, annoy and reveal what really matters to a group of people suffering from the sudden, but expected loss of a family member. Life goes on, so they say, and it’s not a digression from the plot of our lives. It’s all interconnected. It all matters. It’s all important.
Casey Affleck stars as Lee Chandler, whose brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has just died of heart failure. Lee returns to his home town of Manchester to settle Joe’s affairs, and take some responsibility for his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). He had no idea he was supposed to take all of the responsibility: unbeknownst to Lee, his brother has given him custody of Patrick. He doesn’t take it well. He has excellent reasons for not wanting to be a father, even for just a couple of years.
It’s easy to talk about Manchester by the Sea by describing what it isn’t. Stories about single men who return home and/or become parents usually amount to trite parables about the importance of family values and, at their worst, they also romanticize relinquishing one’s individual ambitions. (See: Adult Beginners, The Judge, etc.) But Lonergan is in no mood to preach a sermon. Instead he treats a dramatic life event as it really is: overpowering, yes, but just another thing we have to deal with. Kids still have to go to school, work still needs to get done, sex is still as enticing as ever. Manchester by the Sea doesn’t rely on big speeches. A simple sentence like “Can I get you anything?” speaks volumes in the right context, and with the right tone.
There’s more to Manchester by the Sea. Of course there is. Lee is a troubled man, with heavy personal baggage that he may decide to deal with and he may choose to avoid at all costs. Patrick has two girlfriends, neither of whom know about each other, and he may or may not give a damn and he may or may not have to endure some consequences. And Lee’s ex-wife Randi, played briefly by Michelle Williams, may or may not have moved on. Suspense is everywhere if you know you’re supposed to be looking for it. Watch the actors’ eyes, pay attention to the throwaway dialogue, and you’ll soon be immersed in Manchester by the Sea.
Casey Affleck gives his best performance so far in this film, and that’s no small feat now. The supporting cast matches him at every turn. Lucas Hedges is an impressive young actor, natural and rich, funny and touching. Michelle Williams has only a few scenes in the film, but that’s all she needs. She’s an amazing presence here, and she only needs a handful of moments to wrench the heart.
Manchester by the Sea is an astounding drama. It captivates without ever calling attention to itself. It feels real. It feels honest. It deserves an audience, and audiences deserve great films just like it, the ones that make our actual lives seem just as engrossing as our fantasies.
Top Photo: Pearl Street Films
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most Craved and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.