Manchester by the Sea

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The Beach Boys wrote a lot of good songs in the 50 plus years they’re been a band. My opinion always changes as to which one is my favorite, but right now it seems to have settled on Surf’s Up. Maybe that’s why while watching Manchester by the Sea, one line from that song popped into my mind and seem to resonate with the movie. “A choke of grief heart hardened I/Beyond belief a broken man too tough to cry.” Casey Affleck is that broken man, and Manchester by the Sea is about his grief.

He plays Lee Chandler, a man who at one time was married to a lovely woman named Randi (Michelle WIlliams) and lived in a small town in Massachusetts, Manchester-by-the-sea. Their divorce caused him to leave the town to live alone in Boston as an apartment handyman. Several funny scenes at the beginning of the film show Lee’s day-to-day life dealing with the many quirky people who live in the building. Ordinarily these scenes would be used for cheap laughs, but writer/director Kenneth Lonergan does surprisingly more with them. He contrasts these goofy people with Lee’s blank stare and unamused reactions, which actually makes the scenes a bit funnier. More crucially, however, it shows that Lee is still deeply bothered by his past.

His situation isn’t about to get any better. One morning he gets a phone call saying his brother John (Kyle Chandler) has been hospitalized with cardiac arrest (something a doctor said he was prone to a few years earlier). By the time he makes it to the hospital in Manchester-by-the-sea, John has died. Lee’s clearly saddened by this but doesn’t spend too much time dwelling on it; instead, he starts planning the funeral. During this process he reads his brothers will and finds out he’s been appointed guardian to his 16-year-old nephew (Patrick).

Lee is a complex character, and his predicament is more than just a simple, sitcom-like plot that I’ve described. He’s completely taken aback by the news, although the solution seems pretty simple. As Patrick, played by Lucas Hedges, asks: “I have a life here. You’re a janitor in Boston. Why can’t you move?” But that’s his biggest problem; he refuses to move back.

To go further into detail about the plot would ruin the impact of the film, but stopping here also doesn’t to the movie nearly as much justice as it deserves. It’s not the cliche, melodramatic, Lifetime Original Movie it may seem to be on paper. It’s a rich, powerful, deeply human movie, helped by a handful of career-defining performances.

For starters, Lucas Hedges is phenomenal. Up until now he was probably best known as that evil ginger kid from Moonrise Kingdom that Suzy stabs with scissors (and speaking of Suzy, Kara Hayward is in this too as his girlfriend). But here he really proves himself as an actor, making sure Patrick never comes off as whiney or annoying. In fact, as a teenager going through what he’s going through, he’s effectively sympathetic without asking to be. He does something hard to pull off onscreen; he’s a teenager.

Don’t be fooled by advertisement — Michelle Williams and Kyle Chandler really aren’t in this movie a whole lot. Both have about 3 or 4 key scenes apiece, but they are more than effective in them. Williams tearful exchange with Lee after running into him late in the movie is one of the most heartbreaking scenes of the year. And Chandler fills his character with enough brotherly warmth that by the end of the movie you miss him too.

But this movie really belongs to one person; Casey Affleck. This is his movie and he delivers what is easily the best performance of his career. He’s the epitome of the broken man to tough to cry, and in every scene you can feel his pain of trying to keep himself together (especially in the scenes he shares with Williams). He hits every note of Lee’s character, and he does so effortlessly. It’s a towering performance and a tremendous achievement.

Manchester by the Sea is very similar to another Sundance movie, In the Bedroom. Both are about coping with a death in the family. And, both are set in small Nor’Eastern towns (Bedroom was Maine, Manchester is Massachusettes). But don’t think Manchester is a gloomy movie that only aims to make people cry. There’s actually a good amount of humor in it. It helps break the dramatic tension in it, and helps Manchester be one of the best movies of the year.

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