The Brilliance of Understatement

Giving a film my top recommendation isn’t the same as giving readers a guarantee that it will be universally appreciated. Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester by the Sea” is a great accomplishment, but it’s not the kind of film most people seek out – even leading up to the end of the year when award-worthy slice-of-life films are expected to have a bittersweet kind of satisfaction. “Satisfying” and “entertaining” are certainly not the words that come to mind when it comes to this kind of great movie.

Liklife_film_manchesterbytheseae Lonergan’s other films, it is about the day-to-day existence of characters experiencing a change in their life, which in some way connects to a painful tragedy in their past. Casey Affleck plays Lee, an antisocial Boston janitor who must return to his original home of Manchester, New Hampshire, when his brother (Kyle Chandler) passes away from a heart condition, leaving a teenage son without anyone to look after him.

To Lee’s surprise, his brother’s will named him as the boy’s guardian and trustee of his assets. Lee doesn’t want the responsibility, which means an interruption to his preferred solitude and requires relocating to the town he has very strong reasons to avoid.

To say that this character is damaged would be an understatement. Affleck captures the essence of a shell of a man who only lives out of a sense of duty and obligation when he isn’t having a violent outburst. Like many good dramas, the film tells us his backstory in selectively placed flashbacks, which eventually reveal a horrifying mistake in his past that most people couldn’t live with. Affleck has demonstrated his naturalistic talent in many films but is occasionally given the spotlight, and this may be his greatest role yet.

The teenage nephew, Patrick, is played by Lucas Hedges – an actor I’ve noticed in a lot of East Coast productions, like Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom” and the recent American remake of the TV miniseries “The Slap.” Hedges realistically communicates the emotional confusion that comes with most teenagers – even though his character is rather outgoing and popular. He’s on the high school hockey team, has a garage band, maintains his father’s fishing boat and is balancing two girlfriends who don’t know about each other. He claims to know what he wants, and his nagging attempts to control affairs related to his father’s passing test Lee’s limited patience and provide most of the film’s engaging dialogue.

Lonergan is originally a celebrated New York playwright, and his first film, “You Can Count On Me,” was praised by critics for its insights into human behavior, especially when it comes to troubles between siblings who have taken to adulthood in very different ways. His second film, “Margaret,” was a beautiful project that fell apart because he wrote and shot so many scenes revolving around a year in the life of his fictional teenage girl that it turned into an editorial nightmare, never fully being resolved.

Like that last film, “Manchester by the Sea” also feels more like a long collection of scenes about its characters than a story. Along with assorted classical selections to score the film, it uses simple but effective cinematography that communicates the existence of its characters and the distinct environment of their New England surroundings. At 137 minutes, it may feel taxing to some, but I could have spent the better part of the day in my fascination with these people.

The movie also stars talents like Gretchen Mol, C.J. Wilson, Heather Burns, Matthew Broderick and Michelle Williams – who is understandably given a great amount of emphasis in ads for her small role in this film due to its undeniable power, but this marketing could easily mislead people into assuming she’s Affleck’s primary co-star and that this is a love story. Not the case.

I expected this to be one of 2016’s best and it is, but it isn’t a crowd-pleaser. It is a very potent drama filled with truth, and it views life’s struggles from a very sober perspective. VT