Writer/Director: Kenneth Lonergan
Starring: Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, Lucas Hedges, Heather Burns, Tate Donovan, Matthew Broderick, Gretchen Mol

I’ve written before about that feeling you get when you know walking into the theater that a certain film will touch you. You’ve watched the trailers. You’re read early reviews from the film fests. You respect and are moved by the actors in the cast. You just know. That film for me in 2016 is Manchester by the Sea. I’ve had an appreciation for writer and director Kenneth Lonergan since I read his play This is Our Youth in college. There is an honesty and unapologetic approach with his characters. He’s had a varied film career writing movies like Analyze This and Gangs of New York as well as his own projects like You Can Count On Me and Margaret. Manchester is a family story about what happens when you have to deal with an unexpected death in the family.

Lee Chandler (Affleck) is a janitor just trying to get by in Boston. He spends his days unclogging toilets, changing light bulbs, and shoveling the sidewalks of apartment complexes. He gets word that his brother, Joe (Friday Night Lights’ Kyle Chandler) is back in the hospital due to heart problems. Despite dropping everything and heading to their hometown of Manchester, Joe passes away before Lee can say his goodbyes. He’s flooded with memories of the relationship he had with his brother and is now forced to confront his past. Joe’s ex-wife (Mol) is no longer around and Lee finds himself the sole guardian of his nephew, Patrick (Hedges). This is all new territory for Lee even though he has three kids with his ex-wife Randi (Williams). Patrick is a sexually charged sixteen-year-old with attitude. Lee’s time back in Manchester proves to be challenging as it’s a small town where everyone knows each other and there’s no running from your past.

Death tends to make us look back at our lives, and Kenneth Lonergan’s script is presented like that where the film relies on plenty of flashbacks to fill the audience in on what happened with Lee, Joe, and Patrick Chandler. It provides a deep understanding of where these characters are at when Joe passes away. There’s some unrest at play when you don’t know what is going to come next. We know at the beginning that Lee and Randi are no longer together, but it’s only a matter of time until we figure out what led to that. We also learn what happened with Patrick’s mom. It’s all of the pieces of the Chandler family that make for a heavy movie, yet told with a sense of grace and a sense of humor that is needed when faced with this kind of situation. If you’ve ever been in Lee’s position, you know the logistics at hand. There’s pressure from everyone around to do the right thing, but what is that? Lonergan asks that very question on whether there is a correct way to mourn on not. The residents of Manchester certainly have their opinions.

With the weight on Lee’s shoulders, Lonergan has given Casey Affleck the role of his career. His brother Ben may be the more popular Affleck brother but Casey is the better actor. I struggle stating it like that, but I feel like Casey has always been the “other Affleck”. As Lee Chandler, he demands you to take notice as he carries you through Lee’s heartbreaking life. Exhaustion and emptiness lie within Affleck’s eyes. I was completely captivated watching his performance from beginning to end. I wondered what he was going to do with each and every moment and decision Lee faced. He’s a character that lives in the present not knowing what would be thrown at him next. This trait is very accurate for someone like Lee who is suddenly thrust into a situation he is unprepared for.

As you’ve probably gathered, this is not a fast paced movie. That’s not to be interpreted as a boring movie by any means. That’s only to state that it’s not an action movie. It’s driven by dialogue and the power in the conversation at hand. One key scene comes late in the movie involving Lee and Randi. I have long admired Michelle Williams’s work and this scene proves why. Frankly, it will be the scene used in all of her award show montages. Get ready to see her name listed in the Best Supporting Actress category at any given award show. Whether or not you agree with either character in this moment, you understand where they are coming from. As Patrick, Lucas Hedges is a young upcoming actor to keep your eye on. Lonergan and his cast know how to make even the silent moments ring loud and clear, and he has written many of them into his film. He knows not to rush the personal moments and it’s evident that he trusts Affleck to carry them along. This is equally helped with Lesley Barber’s score which uses minimalist piano and strings to carry along some of the more emotionally charged scenes.

Manchester by the Sea will rightfully be among the awards season chatter. Casey Affleck will be the one to beat in the Best Actor category. It isn’t always a cheerful movie, but Lonergan injects enough humor in the ironic moments that come with the grief and frustration that accompany death. It’s beautiful, heartbreaking, and pulls you right into the emotional conflicts it deals with whether it’s Patrick’s struggle with losing his father or Lee’s sudden thrust back into a life he has tried to move away from. I cannot praise this film enough, so you will just have to settle in and get swept away by these characters, their struggles, and the brisk Manchester atmosphere for this family drama.

Is It Worth Your Trip to the Movies? It ranks right up at the top of my best of 2016 list.


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