Monday, December 5, 2016


How do we define drama? Years ago, master-storyteller Alfred Hitchcock once said that drama is life with the boring parts taken out. Over the years, many filmmakers have wrestled with finding the balance between realism and drama; keep it too real, and it’s dull. Keep the drama going for too long and it steps away from the real world. Such is the task for director/writer Kenneth Lonergan’s MANCHESTER BY THE SEA.

Lee (Casey Affleck), a grief-stricken janitor, reluctantly becomes the sole guardian to his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges), after his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) passes away. Unwilling, and perhaps unable to take on the responsibility, Lee faces his past and the reasons for his grief, which includes his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams).

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA does not have much in terms of plot in the traditional sense. Much of the film deals with Lee and Lucas dealing with mundane, every-day tasks in the wake of Joe’s passing. The movie is packed with real-life situations like speaking with doctors, undertakers, and lawyers, along with unclogging toilets, shoveling snow, and having difficult conversations about living arrangements. Things are kept so real and tempered, that MANCHESTER BY THE SEA often feels like a reality-TV show, where hidden cameras just happen to catch everyday people doing everyday dull things.

But director and writer Kenneth Lonergan is working on a deeper level here. The real-life happenings are made interesting thanks to the characters; each one harboring some sort of grief. The great tragedy that sent Lee into his stoic state has already happened, and the pieces come into view through some clever and well-timed flashbacks. Lee in turn handles things like shoveling snow with the same type of numbness that he has when dealing with now parent-less nephew. The realism offers Lonergan opportunity after opportunity to showcase and explore his characters; the way they react to any given scene and situation is what drives the film…and it is a fascinating watch.

Lonergan films the city of Manchester in such a way that the tiny port-town becomes a character of its own. It’s a vital point for the people in the story, as the cold winters and hard-living up there develops his characters even further. Pacing is very steady, and Lonergan shows the directing-maturity in not letting scenes get over-dramatic or come close to soap-opera level. Lesley Barber’s score adds to the melancholy atmosphere.

Above all else, MANCHESTER BY THE SEA is an actor’s workshop. Casey Affleck puts on the best performance of his career; not only nailing the New England/Boston accent, but powerfully going through the many stages of grief. He shows great chemistry with Lucas Hedges, and the scenes between the two are mini-powerhouses. Hedges in the meantime also has to do plenty of heavy lifting, and he does it very well. Michelle Williams is used sparingly, but she ultimately steals the show in a tearful confrontation with Lee; she basically breaks hearts with a single line. Kyle Chandler is excellent as always, and Matthew Broderick pops in for a hot minute in a bit of a wasted role.

Lonergan’s commitment to keeping things real also means that a not-so-happy ending is presented, but smartly plants the idea (and hope) that the characters at least have a light at the end of their tunnel. That light is a long ways off for them all, and part of the impact of the film is that we would love to revisit these characters again in a few years time just to see if they progressed. MANCHESTER BY THE SEA is a quiet and subtle powerhouse; capable of drawing tears and provoking thought about our own lives, and leaving one mighty impression.


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