There’s a scene about halfway through Manchester by the Sea where Patrick, played by Lucas Hedges, breaks down crying. It’s sudden, as if the emotional stimulation is too much for him to handle. It’s a warranted scene, un-dramatized, and an opposite to everything we’ve come to expect from a drama like this. It’s completely devoid of award season pandering or needless melodrama. With Manchester by the Sea, writer/director Kenneth Lonergan has crafted the perfectly timeless drama, something that feels raw and essential.
Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is a janitor from Boston who’s called back to his hometown following the death of his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler). As Lee struggles to face his past and the memories that his hometown brings back, he discovers a shocking fact: he’s now the legal guardian of Joe’s sixteen year old son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Lee and Patrick, both isolated by Joe’s death, face their new responsibilities and come closer together than they ever could expect.
As a director, Lonergan focuses on the unspectacular. The film feels like a slice of life, but the expert camerawork and faint, beautiful score add the necessary elements to make each scene as powerful as possible. At two hours, the film drags, but it’s intended to drag on like the lives of these characters. The film is uncomfortable at times to watch, but it’s something consistently raw and effective that makes it so essential. Additionally, a brittle sense of humor adds even more realism to the story.
Always a reliable actor, Casey Affleck gives his best performance to date as Lee. Affleck’s role as a completely broken man feels like a real person, and the character’s arc, told somewhat in flashbacks, gives Affleck more than enough material for Affleck to give a broad range of emotion. While it’s a subtle and more contained performance that’s often not given fair attention, I’d be shocked if Affleck didn’t receive an Academy Award nomination, if not win, for Best Actor. To match him is an amazing breakthrough from Lucas Hedges, who’s subtle, realistic performance as a grieving teenager is the best young performance of the year.
Manchester by the Sea is a revelation, the perfect combination of brilliant performances and emotional maturity. It’s tearjerking, hilarious, and completely moving in a way cinema perhaps hasn’t seen since Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, another film that took the stories of normal people and made it into a dramatic feature that will stand the test of time. The best film of the year? We’ll see in January, but if there’s a film in the rest of 2016 that is as affecting and powerful as this, 2016 will surely be a year to be remembered. Grade: A+