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Manchester by the Sea Movie Review

Manchester by the Sea: Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD combo pack cover art
Manchester by the Sea is now available on home video. Read our review of the Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD combo.

Manchester by the Sea (2016) movie poster Manchester by the Sea

Theatrical Release: November 18, 2016 / Running Time: 137 Minutes / Rating: R

Writer/Director: Kenneth Lonergan

Cast: Casey Affleck (Lee Chandler), Michelle Williams (Randi), Kyle Chandler (Joe Chandler), Lucas Hedges (Patrick Chandler), Liam McNeill (Josh), C.J. Wilson (George), Heather Burns (Jill), Tate Donovan (Hockey Coach), Josh Hamilton (Lawyer), Matthew Broderick (Rodney), Gretchen Mol (Elise), Tom Kemp (Stan Chandler), Ben O'Brien (Young Patrick Chandler), Peter Steve Harris (Young Patrick Chandler) Mary Mallen (Sharon), Anna Baryshnikov (Sandy)

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Kenneth Lonergan's career as a writer-director began promisingly with 2000's You Can Count on Me, a film that essentially discovered Mark Ruffalo and earned Laura Linney her first Oscar nomination.
Filmed in 2005, Lonergan's follow-up, Margaret, went unfinished for years, prompting multiple lawsuits during its long editing phase. The New York drama finally materialized in 2011 with a whimper, playing for just four weeks with a max theater count of fourteen, and receiving nary a serious awards campaign despite some critical enthusiasm. Such a challenging experience would drive many a filmmaker out of the business, but like David O. Russell after the romantic comedy that would later be finished and titled Accidental Love hit snags, Lonergan has rebounded with the best work of his career.

Manchester by the Sea cements Lonergan as a storyteller to know and follow. It is virtually guaranteed at this point to be met with a number of major Academy Award nominations that will echo its status as perhaps the most critically acclaimed film of 2016. And all that is deserved because with this film, Lonergan has crafted something original, heartfelt, arresting, and earnest.

Our protagonist is Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), a Bostonian who works as a handyman/janitor at a four-building apartment complex. There, he shovels snowy paths, unclogs toilets, looks at leaky sinks and showers, and changes light bulbs. It's not the most stimulating of work, but it is how Lee makes his living. There doesn't seem to be a whole lot more to Lee than his job. When he's not doing that, he's drinking at a bar where he is uncomfortable around the opposite sex and quick to pick a fight with his fellow man.

Kenneth Lonergan's "Manchester by the Sea" stars a powerfully understated Casey Affleck as a man weathering tragedy in Massachusetts.

Early in the film, Lee gets a call that changes his life. His older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has just died suddenly of a cardiac arrest. It's not a complete shock; a flashback shows Joe diagnosed years earlier with congestive heart failure and given five to ten years to live. But the death still hurts a lot for Lee, who we've already seen spending time on Joe's boat with him and his son on the water of the titular Massachusetts fishing town. That son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), is now 16 and custody of him seems up in the air until Joe's will appoints Lee the boy's sole guardian, to Lee's surprise and dismay.

Manchester takes its sweet time to reveal how Lee came to be this way. We see glimpses of a happier life with his wife Randi (Michelle Williams) and three lovable young children. Joe's death is not Lee's first brush with tragedy. His painful past, almost too difficult for us to bear even as mere spectators, weighs down upon him at all times, making him reluctant to relocate to Manchester and raise Patrick as Joe wanted.

There is no gloss or artificiality to this film. It doesn't shy from harsher aspects of life that no one wants to deal with, from viewing a loved one in a hospital morgue to "making arrangements" and all that entails, like dealing with funeral parlors and wills and reconnecting with estranged family members. The film is long and leisurely paced but never uninteresting or less than moving and genuine.

Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) can't bring himself to accept custody of his late brother's teenaged son Patrick (Lucas Hedges) for reasons that gradually become clear to us. Lee (Casey Affleck) can't seem to accept the love we want him to have and he so desperately needs from his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams).

Nineteen years after holding a supporting role in his more famous brother Ben's Oscar-winning Good Will Hunting,
the younger Affleck makes a perhaps definitive case for him being the most talented performer in his family. It's not exactly a huge revelation; this comes nine years after Casey's Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and capable lead turn in the riveting, Ben-directed Gone Baby Gone. Now, Casey suddenly seems like the frontrunner for the Best Actor Oscar. He conveys pain quietly but authentically and his performance is a testament to the power of understatement. There isn't a real flashy scene ripe for Oscar ceremony excerption. Affleck does more reacting than acting. But it's nothing less than terrific and the leading source of the film's considerable power.

He's not the only bright spot in the cast. Kyle Chandler is characteristically excellent. Unfortunately, he's probably one big scene shy of having any shot at supporting actor nominations, adding to his streak of appearing in and dramatically aiding decorated films without ever being personally singled out with accolades. Williams too has limited screentime, but she has two powerful scenes that may be enough to push her into Oscar contention for a fourth time. In a role with breakout potential, Hedges gets plenty to do and he does it well, making Patrick a character you neither love nor hate. Male competition is thicker though and only five male teenagers have ever drawn Oscar nominations. Extending his streak of Lonergan films, Matthew Broderick is good in one scene and one voiceover-read e-mail. Also seizing a few opportunities to shine as Patrick's mother is Gretchen Mol, who reminds us she can act nearly two decades after being prematurely designated an "It Girl." Another standout is C.J. Wilson, an actor you probably haven't seen a whole lot of his 15 years of mostly bit parts.

But it all goes back to Lonergan, who single-handedly wrote this seemingly personal and intimate tale, evidently without living it as presented. (He also makes a cameo as a judgmental passerby.) It shares some of the positive traits of his first two films as auteur, but without repeating beats and while finding a rhythm, tone, and feel all its own. Providing the occasional chuckle and quite a few more tears, Manchester by the Sea captures what it feels like to be alive, to endure hardship, and try to solve problems without easy solutions. Both literally and figuratively, it is rendered in shades of gray that may make it less than fully enjoyable for your average moviegoer but uniquely rewarding for those who look for films that convey the human experience with genuine emotion and three-dimensional characters rather than convention and tropes.

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Related Reviews:
Now in Theaters: Moonlight Hacksaw Ridge | Written and Directed by Kenneth Lonergan: Margaret
Casey Affleck: Gone Baby Gone The Finest Hours Interstellar | Kyle Chandler: Carol The Wolf of Wall Street Argo Zero Dark Thirty
Michelle Williams: Blue Valentine My Week with Marilyn | C.J. Wilson: Demolition
Spotlight The Fighter The Verdict The Witch Silver Linings Playbook

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Reviewed November 18, 2016.

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