In Manchester By the Sea, for many it’s a rousing introduction to two underrated individuals that have been in film for a long time but have always seemed to be off peoples’ radar: Casey Affleck and Writer/Director Kenneth Lonergan. 

Underrated is a term that gets thrown around a lot when it comes to describing actors and directors, but the emotional forces of this film are so powerful that it elevates both of them to permanency on the so called “A list”.  As hollow as that sounds, this is a good thing because moviegoers need to see more of Casey Affleck (start with Lonesome Jim, and finish with The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford) and Kenneth Lonergan (see You Can Count On Me and Margret)

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In its purest sense, this is a film about tragedy and how people cope with the life altering circumstances that come along with it. In the film, Affleck plays the role of Lee Chandler, a grossly dispirited janitor residing in Boston.  The opening scenes show him servicing a handful of needy renters in the middle of winter and barely showing signs of life while doing random odd jobs for most of the day. As he drags his lifeless body through the day, his only comfort seems to be having a drink by himself at the end of it. Suddenly he gets the news of his brother’s death and is called to make the trip to Manchester, a sleepy working class enclave along the cape, to take care of the funeral arrangements.  

While there, he is shocked to discover that his brother named him as the guardian of his 16-year-old son, Patrick played by Lucas Hedges. Lee is no condition to watch over a teen since he can barley take care of himself, but with the only other alternatives being Patrick given to a family friend or his estranged alcoholic mother, he has no choice but to move back to Manchester to figure out how to handle his new role. However, Manchester is the source of Lee’s pain and since the ground is too frozen to give his brother a proper burial, he is forced to remain there until spring when the ground is fertile enough to be dug into. 

Throughout the film flashbacks of Lee’s life before his present condition are shown and gradually detail how his own family life eroded. The flashbacks begin with poignant moments revealing how close him and his brother were and show that when Patrick was a young boy, Lee was close to him as well. At present though, years have passed since they’ve seen each other and Lee’s former vibrant spirit has completely dissolved. Eventually when a gut wrenching flashback exposes what it was that caused Lee to change, it becomes clear why Manchester haunts him and why being Patrick’s guardian may not be possible.  

There is both great agony and tenderness to Lee’s character, and the performance put in by Affleck makes the film one that will burrow itself deep in your heart for weeks, it not months after seeing it. The contrast between Lee, a loner who wallows through a joyless life, and Patrick who is surrounded by friends and a life of promise stands out tall on screen and fascinating to watch unfold. Casey Affleck’s role of Lee was so infectious, that he’s become a favorite to win an Oscar but the performances turned in Kyle Chandler and Michele Williams are also integral parts of what makes the film one the year’s best.  

A powerful undercurrent that flows throughout each scene is that, for some people, time doesn’t always heal old wounds. The desolate nature of winter in a coastal town adds to the drama of the film and serves as an important supporting role of the story. The film takes place from winter to spring, and that passage of time blends in masterfully with the story as it unfolds, especially during one of the most mesmerizing scenes of the year between him and his ex-wife. 

I’ve seen many films that deal with depressed lead characters, but I don’t think I’ve seen one more realistic than this. This is a film that shows how much of a struggle it is to move through life when your spirit is shattered and it does so in way that makes characters like Lee seem heroic for just making the most subtle of achievements like getting to work or arranging a funeral impressive. This is because we see that underneath Lee’s quiet surface, there is a world of unimaginable pain that gnaws at him and beckons to give up the fight of living. 

Watching him fight through it is what makes Manchester By the Sea an experience you won’t ever forget.

Manchester by the Sea

Manchester by the Sea

Release Date: Dec 16, 2016

Genre: Drama

starring: Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, Lucas Hedges

Synopsis: After his older brother passes away, Lee Chandler is forced to return home to care for his 16-year-old nephew.

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