Some things in life take you by surprise and turn everything upside down. It can complicate relationships, the way you communicate, and change who you are. And when that happens a few times, it can become overwhelming. This is Manchester by the Sea.
Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is the caretaker of a block of apartments where everyone treats him like dirt. He is an awkward guy, swearing at tenants and fighting in bars, struggling to really connect with anyone. So when his brother dies of heart complications, leaving behind a son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), and a will listing Lee as his new guardian, it's no surprise that Lee finds it difficult to adjust to this new development. Conflicted by his new role in life which is trying to force him to relocate to Manchester from Boston, he and Patrick butt heads over how they see their lives progressing, but ultimately they are both trying to cope with grief in their own way.
Writer/ director Kenneth Lonergan has created an extraordinary piece of cinema here. It's understated and gentle in its approach but its narrative structure and pacing really pack a punch. We're introduced to Lee as a mystery figure - 'is that the Lee Chandler?' one character asks - and slowly Lonergan reveals the secret side of his protagonist, building up a story line in the present before flashing back to expose Lee's past with precise timing for maximum effect. This is assisted in no small part by remarkable, career defining performances by Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges. Their on-screen chemistry (and this extends to the further cast also, but the two leads particularly) encapsulates Lonergan's screenplay, hitting every off beat pause and every awkward interruption. The camera lingers uncomfortably in the middle of broken dialogue and jarring conversations, or even moments of strained silence. It's painfully funny; we are the flies on the wall of Lee's life as he stumbles and stutters through it.
Manchester by the Sea is arguably flawless in its execution. Despite its hilarity, it is also desperately sad at points which helps to demonstrate Affleck's range but also adds variety to the film. his rows with his wife Randi, played incredibly by Michelle Williams, serve to show both Randi and Lee's darker sides, their hurtful sides. In less capable hands, it would suffer from tonal inconsistencies, but not here. In Lonergan's hands, this is where the film thrives, building on the changes in pacing and tone to allow for the greatest impact. The deeper the film goes, too, the better it gets - it never loses its way or tries to be more than it is. It is confident in itself, comfortable in its awkward, uncomfortable screenplay and performances. Despite having a socially disconnected, the film is driven by emotion and the passion is clear, even if it is understated.
A well crafted screenplay, brought to life by its author and embodied by its cast. There are many moving parts in Manchester by the Sea and they are all committed to telling this story to the best of their abilities. The result is a marvellously moving, captivating and hilarious piece of cinema.