With writing credits for GANGS OF NEW YORK and YOU CAN COUNT ON ME under his belt, Kenneth Lonergan seemed to suddenly go quiet on the Hollywood front. But after a few years of silence, he is thankfully back with MANCHESTER BY THE SEA, a poignant story grappling with the affects of death and grief.
Casey Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a standoffish handyman in Boston who struggles to garner a likeable reputation on the job and off -- or maybe it's not a struggle at all, but a goal, as he fishes for bar fights and generally tries to avoid any sort of emotional connection.
When Lee's brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler) dies of heart failure, Lee drives to his hometown, Manchester-by-the-Sea -- yes, that's actually the name of the town -- to become the unwilling guardian of Joe's 16-year old son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). It's not that he doesn't love his nephew; it is his tragedy-torn past that makes him so hesitant... a past which the town keeps whispering about every time he walks through the door.
The film fleshes out Lee's life in an array of flashbacks which show his relationship with Joe and Patrick (whose younger self is played by Ben O'Brien), and with his ex-wife, Randi (Michele Williams). But in contrast with these familiar, seemingly happy memories that Lee keeps reliving, there is one memory in particular that explains his current behavior. I'll let the film divulge that secret for you, but suffice it to say that it adds another layer to the emotional turmoil that Lee must now deal with.
MANCHESTER BY THE SEA is a compelling and true-to-life snapshot of the mourning process, as each character finds a way to deal with their grief. As much as Patrick would deny needing the help, he must lean on Lee, the more experienced in heartbreak, to navigate his father's death and continue on in life. But for Lee, this seems to just be an extension of what he thinks he deserves.
The performances in this film are stunning. Affleck adds such nuance to the stoic mask that Lee wears, and Hedges is a pleasant surprise for such a new actor. Chandler, Williams, and C.J. Wilson round out the supporting cast, though at least in the case of Chandler and Williams, they can hardly be counted as supporting roles due to their integral twining of the plot.
This film is in the race to pick up a few nominations for the Academy Awards. MANCHESTER BY THE SEA is now playing at Midtown Cinema!