Friday, December 9, 2016

Manchester by the Sea

Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea is a simple story that provides surprising depth. Following the death of his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler), the less-reliable Lee (Casey Affleck) is given custody of his Joe's teenage son Patrick (Lucas Hedges) forcing him to leave his dreary life in Boston and return to the home he abandoned in Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts years before.

Affleck and Lonergan thread a difficult needle here as Lee comes off as immediately unlikable, unreliable, and by all accounts the worst choice to be his nephew's guardian, while still leaving the door open for our opinion to change as we learn more about his troubled past. It's a good role for Affleck who knows just how to play the moody loneliness of the character while foreshadowing that there's something far more complex going on with Lee under the surface. A stark contrast to his mopey uncle, Hedges is is a charismatic lightning bolt everyone seems to gravitate to (such as his multiple girlfriends who include Kara Hayward and Anna Baryshnikov). More together than Lee, most of the time it's a little unclear who is taking care of who following his father's death.

Lonergan doesn't cut any corners here. None of the characters who appear on-screen are simply one thing or another. The choices Lee accepts and attempts to run away from are hard without any easy answers. Rounding out the cast is Michelle Williams as Lee's ex-wife Randi, seen mostly in flashbacks. Although disconnected to the plot of Lee and his nephew, Williams plays a crucial role to how the film's plot unfolds. It's in those scenes that film delves into its darkest moments including one of the year's most unforgettable scenes taking place in the sea town's police station. The movie's other stand-out scene involves Lee and his nephew on one particularly hard night when we see a side to the screw-up only hinted at up until that point in the film.

Manchester by the Sea is a solid film built on character and acting led by Affleck's layered performance. The writer/director gets the most out of his cast while slowly peeling back the onion of Lee's life to underscore and inform his current situation (which he struggles mightily to accept and deal with). Somewhere along the way Lonergan transforms what could have been your typical unprepared daddy drama into something far more intriguing by building the story on real pain, emotion, and loss. The result is one of the year's best films.

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