In 2016, Manchester By the Sea was the early leader in the Best Picture race for the Oscars. Before La La Land was on everyone’s minds, this one had the critics impressed.
And rightly so. The story itself doesn’t break any new ground, but the beauty is in how director Kenneth Lonergan moves along the story. His main character, Lee (Casey Affleck), is a custodian in Massachusetts when he finds out he’s now the legal guardian of his 16-year-old nephew after his brother dies. But Lee’s life isn’t necessarily uprooted. We can tell right away from his social cues that he’s either depressed or has some social issues. We’re unsure what to think, but Lonergan’s sporadic narrative helps us out, while also taking an otherwise slow story and making it a lot more compelling.
He jumps back and forth between Lee’s past and present, showing us he hasn’t always been this way. All of a sudden, we feel for Lee–a guy who we had been feeling very distanced from–and now understand him completely. Lonergan creates a parabolic story arc, building up all of this tension and, at the flip of a switch, pieces come together and our main character is developed. It’s brilliant.
The depth of character doesn’t end with Lee. In just the short amount of screen time he has, the audience also gets a firm grasp of Lee’s brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler). He suffers from early onset congestive heart failure, yet he’s the one taking care of all these messed up people around him. Again finding another reason to utilize these flashbacks, we get an excellent understanding of his and Lee’s relationship.
Lonergan’s direction is only half the reason why we get so much out of these characters. Besides the genius work done by Affleck, Lucas Hedges as Lee’s nephew, Patrick, comes off as so natural and organic that we almost forget to analyze his performance. Following the loss of his father, he’s at an important period in his life and has to deal with all these changes around him. Hedges conveys this brutal vulnerability with such ease.
The film is intense at times, but not ever too somber. The tone is that of a dark comedy, but where a dark comedy can verge on weird and even irreverent, Manchester By the Sea doesn’t do this. It merely finds the natural humor and irony in things many of us have to deal with in life, walking a fine line between not taking itself too seriously and being taboo. We’re shown the truth in each subject covered.
The ending appears inconclusive, but it’s not empty. However, this may not satisfy some viewers. But Manchester By the Sea is one of those rare movies that gets better the more you think about it.
On a side note, Michelle Williams makes another case for why she’s one of the best actresses working in Hollywood today. Another outstanding performance. I really thought she deserved the Oscar for this role.