Movie Review: Manchester by the Sea

Downbeat drama is anchored by top-notch performances

Manchester by the Sea (Místo u moře)
Directed by Kenneth Lonergan
With Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, Gretchen Mol, Lucas Hedges

The awards season is well under way, and last year's top films are now flooding the theaters. Manchester by the Sea has six Oscar nominations, and actor Casey Affleck won a Golden Globe for his performance. The film has won numerous other awards as well.

The title Manchester by the Sea refers to a town in the US state of Massachusetts where the bulk of the film takes place. A somewhat reclusive janitor, Lee Chandler (played by Casey Affleck), is living in the Boston area, barely managing to hold onto his job due to complaints that he is too unfriendly to the tenants of the buildings he looks after. While usually quiet and mild mannered, he reveals a temper when he drinks too much.

His routine gets turned upside down when he receives news that his brother, Joe (played by Kyle Chandler) who has a medical condition, has had a heart attack. Lee has to return to his home town of Manchester by the Sea to take care of things.

The reasons that Lee has turned into such a loner are slowly revealed during the film. Early on, there is mention of contacting his ex-wife, Randi (Michelle Williams). Some children are seen in a flashback. They seemed like a happy enough family in the past.

Lee is also seen in flashbacks on a small fishing boat with his nephew, Patrick. Later in the film, Patrick is played as a teenager by Lucas Hedges. On the boat, Lee and Patrick get along fairly well, joking around about sharks in the water.

To say that Lee is a man of few words is an understatement. Casey Affleck has a hard task making his character sympathetic. Affleck gives a very naturalistic performance, and the audience can feel his struggle to find some way to do what is best for everyone. He doesn't want to return to his hometown, as it has unpleasant associations for him, and something in his past has made him a bit of a pariah.

His performance pushes the film over the top. Matt Damon, who was one of the film's producers, was at one time supposed to act and direct. After seeing Casey Affleck in the lead role, it is hard to imagine Damon being as good.

The film's central plot bears a strong resemblance to the 2004 comedy Raising Helen, starring Kate Hudson and directed by Garry Marshall. That film turned the same situation into a formulaic comedy that got almost universally bad reviews.

Manchester by the Sea has a much more realistic script that takes a rather downbeat approach to tragic material. At the same time, it doesn't overplay its hand. Writer and director Kenneth Lonergan sits back and lets the events unfold logically, without a lot of unnecessary Sturm und Drang to turn it into a three-handkerchief melodrama.

While Casey Affleck has gotten most of the recognition, the entire ensemble cast does well. Matthew Broderick turns up late in the film for a crucial scene as a born-again Christian. He creates a full character with just a few lines of dialogue. Michelle Williams also has only a few scenes and manages to fill them with some emotion.

The younger actors, Lucas Hedges as the nephew and his group of school friends are not as good as the adult cast, and they are a bit of drawback.

On the whole, Manchester by the Sea is a rather depressing affair though, offering no simplistic and uplifting answers to its complex questions. It doesn't pull its punches to please the audience. The film does work though as a drama capturing some people caught up in a tragedy, while at the same time living their lives and finding a way to move forward.

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