By Will Mann
I will start out this review by saying that Manchester by the Sea is my favorite film of 2016. And while I’m still holding out for other films that I have yet to see, I’m not necessarily sure they’ll be able to take out Manchester’s lead. It’s not often that I leave the theater as moved and enthralled as I was by this film. It is an expertly orchestrated film, a momentous achievement in contemporary American cinema.
The plot centers on down-on-his-luck plumber Lee (Casey Affleck), who is shocked to discover that his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has suddenly died following a diagnosis of heart disease. Lee returns to Manchester, MA, the town they grew up and lived in, to take care of his 16-year-old nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges), who was being raised solely by Joe. But Joe’s will states that he wanted Lee to raise Patrick in the event of his death, and an unsure Lee copes with the new reality of being Patrick’s de facto guardian. This also triggers Lee’s tragic backstory: he too was a father of three young children, with a beautiful wife named Brandi (Michelle Williams). One night, after a party and very much intoxicated, Lee went to a convenience store while leaving a fire burning at his house. The house caught on fire, killing Lee’s three children, the immediate effect of which was to cause him and Brandi to separate. As Patrick and Lee try to determine what their new lives will be, including taking up the fishing on their boat they used to do as a family, Brandi reaches out to Lee. She apologizes for everything she said, but with a new husband and baby, the two realize there is no hope at full reconciliation. Meanwhile, Patrick’s long absent mother (Gretchen Mol) reaches out to him, but after an awkward dinner and interactions with her new fiancé (Matthew Broderick), Patrick decides not to meet with her again. The film ends with Lee making arrangements for Patrick to be raised by a family friend instead of himself, but promising that they will still visit and stay in touch.
Where do I start? I want to give particular attention to the screenplay and story of the film. The line I have been using in reference to how the narrative of this film flows is that it’s more novelistic than most films I have ever seen. Characters, even if they’re only on screen for a few seconds or only have a few lines of dialogue, feel fleshed out and fully developed. The narrative doesn’t seem completely focused to the big-picture story taking place, so it feels comfortable having asides and scenes that, while they don’t add a lot to the plot, are nevertheless appreciated.
The performances are phenomenal. Lead actor Casey Affleck steals the show as Lee, showing the conflicted and emotional depth a character in a predicament would have. Michelle Williams also impresses in her all-too-brief performance as Lee’s ex-wife. Another brief performance I would’ve liked to have seen more from is Kyle Chandler, but he does fine with what he’s given. The real standout, for me, was Lucas Hedges as Patrick. While his name has not been floated around as much as fellow cast-members as one that is likely to get an Oscar nomination, Hedges is able to stand on his own and toe-to-toe with this impressive cast. His performance reminds me of another performance by teenage actor in a dramatic film, Timothy Hutton’s Oscar-winning role in Ordinary People, in that, despite his young age, he is able to bring a real depth and emotionality to his character. When he pleads with Lee to stay at the end of the film, his delivery of one of his lines in particularly brought me to tears. While Affleck, Williams and Chandler certainly deserve their various accolades, for me, the real breakout performance was Lucas Hedges, and I hope to see more of him in the future.
Kenneth Lonergan both wrote and directed this film, and it shows. Every choice, every frame, every word in every line of dialogue seems deliberately placed. This seems like a personal passion project in every sense of the phrase. Every scene resonates or lands, and its constant momentum helps keep you engaged even if the plot isn’t at a particularly riveting place. It is a profound exploration of the nature of grief and the process of mourning. Please, do yourself a favor and see this incredible film while it’s still in theaters.