Manchester by the Sea is the type of movie that will punch you in the heart one minute and tickle you the next. It’s a movie where even seasoned cinemagoers who feel like or claim to have seen everything are likely to marvel at how director Kenneth Lonergan was able to achieve something new, interesting, painful, hilarious, or beautiful, or some combination of all these things, in every single scene. It’s the type of movie that makes a person reach for the nearest hyperbole to describe it.
The amazing thing is that it doesn’t seem like it would warrant such description. Lonergan has demonstrated his ability as a writer through the years, going back to You Can Count on Me and continuing with Margaret, movies that also seem ordinary until you realize you’ve been thinking about them for weeks afterward (Laura Linney’s “You suck” to Mark Ruffalo in You Can Count on Me has to be one of the realest moments I’ve ever seen in a movie). In Manchester, the story is relatively common, mundane even, on the surface. Casey Affleck stars as Lee Chandler, an apartment building janitor in suburban Boston who travels to his hometown of Manchester upon the news that his brother Joe has died.
The logistics that need to be taken care of in the event of a death in the family is something that seems straightforward in the abstract, but the way this movie dwells in these details captures their arduousness – the task of taking care of the things that need to be taken care of while dealing with the full weight of fresh grief. The major detail is that Joe’s son, Patrick, now needs a legal guardian, and that responsibility falls to Lee, whose history makes this prospect impossible for him to consider. It’s clear he has reasons for leaving the town in the first place, and the timing for this revelation is early enough to provide context for the rest of the story but well placed enough to avoid spoiling in its entirety. It’s heavy.
Lonergan fills in all sorts of contextual details in beautifully imagined flashbacks that don’t feel expository in the slightest. Scenes with Joe, played with the gruff but warm charm of Kyle Chandler, or with Lee’s ex-wife Randi, played by the emotional juggernaut Michelle Williams, play like simple vignettes that are constantly revealing information that we don’t realize until the information becomes relevant in present day scenes. In other words, it’s incredibly brilliant writing mixed with direction that lends realism and immediacy to these scenes, rather than treating them like flashbacks we need to know about so that we can move on with the story.
The keystone of this movie, of course, is Casey Affleck, who’s the master of “I do not want to talk about that” (whereas Michelle Williams is the master of “I desperately want to talk about that but I can’t or else I won’t stop crying). Lee is a character with tragedy that he’s buried so deep that he is literally unable to talk about his past, unable to address it in any way, but is apparent in everything he does. Is that not as good as acting gets? The masculine tendency to never address anything to do with feelings is taken as a given with characters like Lee and Patrick, and somehow everything they’re feeling is clear as can be to the audience, if not to each other. As Patrick, Lucas Hedges is continually surprising, keeping everyone on their toes, working to defy expectation at every turn. Like a normal teenager.
Big emotions across the spectrum fill this movie from beginning to end. Lonergan has an affection for the operatic, to be sure. Classical choral and opera music score much of the film’s scenes, which underscores the fact that even though these seem like mundane, everyday, typical moments and scenes that exist in the lives of ordinary people, they really are as significant as the stuff of melodrama. They don’t feel dramatic in the moment; they just feel like life. This film contains all the feeling and richness of opera and melodrama without any monologues or characters spilling their guts. They just go on with things as though nothing’s wrong, with the occasional panic attack, like normal people.
It’s nice to see a movie where everyone is relatively nice and just trying their best. That’s really all Manchester by the Sea is about. It also features some seriously funny moments, augmented by the many other feelings at play. The best example comes when one unfeeling character, a stranger played by Lonergan himself in a cameo role, criticizes Affleck’s “parenting” and gets cursed out by everyone else on screen. These are not characters you can criticize, only feel for and with.
When all is said and done, I really don’t expect there to be a finer movie at the Toronto International Film Festival this year.
Sure to be one of the best films of this year, Manchester by the Sea delivers the soaring emotions of melodrama with a masterfully delicate touch.