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Manchester by the Sea is a comical, heartbreaking masterpiece

Kenneth Lonergan’s latest film features a standout performance by Casey Affleck.

Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges in Manchester By the Sea
Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges in Manchester by the Sea.

My father grew up in South Boston, and most of his family still lives near there. I grew up listening to my uncles and grandparents speak in thick accents about pahking the cah, about welding and wiring, about working on the Big Dig. Both of my dad’s brothers ride Harleys. His twin brother has a spider web tattooed on his elbow. We’re all die-hard Red Sox fans.

Rating


5


I love my father’s family. They are boisterous and tight-knit, even when they’re fighting. But you’d hardly call them emotionally open. They love each other, but they don’t go around talking about it a lot. That’s not their way.

So when my father died suddenly of complications from leukemia at 47, it was remarkable to watch them, especially my grandfather, a man of few words, process grief — with some anger and a few tears, but also with a series of uproarious jokes I can still remember 10 years later. Yet nobody’s really recovered. I don’t see the family as much these days, but I hear from them sometimes, and it’s always surprising to remember that we’re all still hurting and trying to heal.

That twisted rope of grief, depression, and humor is wrapped around Manchester by the Sea, Kenneth Lonergan’s masterful portrait of deep tragedy and emotion among men in a community that prizes stoicism.

That community is the titular Manchester-by-the-Sea, on the north shore of Boston — the other side of town from my family — an overwhelmingly white hamlet whose residents speak in thick accents. It’s a remarkable film in almost every respect, but its greatest achievement might be not just portraying but embodying the complicated inner lives of the men at its center.

It’s still rare to find American films that treat men, especially in rural or working-class areas, as emotionally complex; the other great one that springs to mind is Jeff Nichols’s exploration of masculine anxiety and dread in Take Shelter. In Manchester by the Sea, though, the deep tragedy is shot through with some truly excellent comedic writing. The result is hard to categorize: Is it drama? Melodrama? Tragedy? Comedy?

Manchester by the Sea is a remarkable portrayal of grief in ordinary life

All of those, yes, but something else besides. Lonergan writes his characters with emotion and affection, weaving their extraordinary circumstances in with the ordinary ones: two people trying to figure out what to eat for dinner, a bad blind date, a pair of amped-up teenage lovebirds.

Casey Affleck in Manchester By the Sea
Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea.
Amazon Studios

It helps that Manchester by the Sea boasts some of the strongest performances of the year — particularly Casey Affleck, who plays Lee Chandler, a man who has experienced deep loss. We don’t find out the details until midway through the film, but it’s obvious from the start, written all over his face and posture as he works as a janitor and handyman in a building in Quincy (pronounced kwinzee, if you’re in the know). Lee is in some kind of self-imposed exile, like a self-flagellating monk, and seems to want nothing more than to disappear entirely.

He’s called back to Manchester when his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) dies, leaving behind a 17-year-old son Patrick (Lucas Hedges), whose troubled mother took off a long while ago. Lee’s ex-wife, Randi (Michelle Williams), still lives nearby, and it’s the kind of place where everyone knows everyone and bumps into them all over town, even without a funeral to attend.

The film cuts back and forth between past and present, echoing the uncomfortable jolts to the past Lee experiences as he encounters rooms and people laced with memories and trauma. In the meantime, though, he has to keep it together, plan a funeral, and look after Patrick, who’s both worldly and endearingly naive, and who copes with his grief by going to band practice and hanging out with his girlfriends (both of them, but not at once).

Manchester by the Sea makes you feel the place it’s named for

The patter between Affleck and Hedges is the sort that only a skilled playwright could write, hilarious and affectionate and biting, with a lot going on below the surfaces of the words. The words flow freely until they actually have to talk about their feelings, when they become labored. Their uncle-nephew chemistry serves to build out both their characters and a long family history of trouble, hard work, and small mercies. There’s been much talk about Affleck’s performance in this film as a shoo-in for a Best Actor Oscar — and it would be richly deserved — but in a year of fantastic teenage breakout performances, Hedges might be the best, though the rest of the cast is also terrific.

Michelle Williams and Casey Affleck in Manchester By the Sea
Michelle Williams and Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea.
Amazon

Cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes, one of the best in the business, shoots New England exactly the way it feels to its natives: sometimes so gloriously sunny and rich it can break a heart, and other times cold, gray, and mean, with a weather forecast that feels like an ongoing personal insult. It’s not just atmosphere — it’s mood, in the air, sticking to your skin.

But what’s most striking is how the whole film comes together. Lonergan never sits too long on any one scene or emotion, intuitively sensing exactly where each look and line is most effective. The result is breathtaking, in a literal sense: At some point I realized I’d stopped breathing, and so had the rest of the theater. Lonergan sidesteps sentimentality simply by treating characters with respect, as human beings with many dimensions, some of them contradictory.

I’ve found it really hard to write about Manchester by the Sea, because it sunk into my bones so deeply it’s hard to extract. Yet just thinking about it now, my heart is in my throat. Watching people go through the small banalities that follow a family member’s death is moving, and making them compelling takes deep powers of observation. Lonergan has given a great gift to American cinema, one that sees life as both funny and tragic. It’s not to be missed.

Manchester by the Sea opens in theaters on November 18.