There’s a lot of awards buzz surrounding Kenneth Lonergan’s new drama, and it is all entirely deserved. This portrayal of grief and coping is a quiet powerhouse that will pull you in and take hold of your emotions, not letting up until its final frame.
The film centres around Casey Affleck’s Lee Chandler, a handyman whose brother (Kyle Chandler) dies suddenly and he is named the guardian of his 16 year-old nephew (Lucas Hedges). Upon returning home to deal with the aftermath of his brother’s death, including deciding whether or not to take his nephew into his care or find him somewhere else to live, he is forced to confront the past he ran from and delve back into complex relationships.
Lonergan takes his emotion-based premise and crafts a beautifully balanced masterpiece, never descending into melodrama, nor milking aspects of the story. It feels authentic and raw, fully immersing you in its atmosphere and emotion to evoke the utmost empathy. The characters fumble and stumble over their words and sentences, attempting to piece together how they are feeling into words, not simply spouting pre-written lyrical lines, allowing the dialogue to take on a very real and genuine nature.
The story is told through the present day intercut with flashbacks. These serve to provide intrigue and curiosity, before revealing the details of past events alluded to in the present, and allowing the audience to come to understand the formation of the characters. Lonergan plays with moments of quiet, and uses the strong, beautiful score to full effect. This is most effectively utilised in scenes where all diegetic noise and dialogue is silenced, and the music replaces it, combined with quietly meditating cinematography, it allows moments of emotion to reach their full impact.
The film boasts some of the greatest acting of the past few years, with each of the principle actors delivering stunningly authentic and evocative performances. Affleck is incredibly captivating in the lead role, quietly projecting Lee’s inner struggle, whilst maintaining the closed nature of the character. The full power of his performance is expressed in the moments of outburst, which are just as affecting as the moments of stillness. Hedges is brilliant as Lee’s nephew, embodying the role of a teenager coping with grief by preoccupying himself with his everyday life, letting girl and band troubles prevent his grief from consuming him, as well as really bringing out Lee’s character. Similarly, despite only 11 minutes of screentime, Michelle Williams (as Lee’s ex-wife) is outstanding, fully portraying the trauma and struggles of her character and playing a major part in one of the film’s most emotional scenes so effectively.
Lonergan never treats his audience as stupid, allowing them to figure things out for themselves, and infer from small clues rather than exaggerating details through unnecessary close ups. This helps to engage you further; you feel so involved, you are never aware you are watching a film. Lonergan maintains this feeling of closeness and authenticity right up until the end, he doesn’t sell out with a fairytale ending, ensuring that the strong, lingering emotion built up throughout doesn’t vanish as the credits appear.
Manchester by the Sea is an inherently sad film, but there is plenty of tonal variation as the film plunges into even darker territory, but also lets out a few laughs every now and then. It is a masterful piece that grasps hold of your emotions and wraps itself around you, providing a devastating, heartbreaking, yet cathartic experience, with a power that won’t let go of you for a while. Honestly, it is a pretty much perfect film.