Manchester by the Sea is an affecting examination of the grieving process brought to life through strong direction and compelling performances.
Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is a housing maintenance keeper/janitor who leads a quiet life in Quincy, Massachusetts and is generally very reserved, save for those occasions where his temper (dramatically) gets the better of him. When personal tragedy strikes, Lee ends up having to travel to Manchester/Manchester-by-the-Sea - the small seaside town where Lee used to live - in order to look after his nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Lee does his best to help Patrick to adjust to his new life, but the pair struggle to connect the way they did when they were younger.
Their situation becomes all the more difficult for Lee when he is informed that he's now Patrick's legal guardian, with the expectation being that he will now relocate to Manchester in order to care for Patrick - and to allow him to continue living his life there without additional interruption - until the latter reaches adulthood. Being back in Manchester causes Lee to revisit his past (including, those events that led him to leave the community in the first place), as he and Patrick both struggle in different ways to deal with what they have lost - and the difficulties that life continues to throw at them.
Manchester by the Sea is the third directorial effort from screenwriter-turned helmsman Kenneth Lonergan, following his debut drama You Can Count on Me and Margaret: a film that (somewhat infamously) was stuck in post-production for four years, before it was finally released. Lonergan has learned much from his earlier struggles and honed his craft as a director accordingly, if his third feature - an emotionally-powerful drama that reflects on themes of familial connections and the repercussions of traumatic events on people's lives (ideas similar to those explored in Lonergan's previous work) - is any indication. Manchester by the Sea is an affecting examination of the grieving process, brought to life through strong direction and compelling performances.
Directed by Lonergan based on his original script, Manchester by the Sea is a visually lyrical film that establishes its mood and atmosphere through beautiful cinematography by Jody Lee (Martha Marcy May Marlene, Trainwreck) - capturing the changing emotions of its narrative and characters through unembellished, yet striking shots of its winterly Massachusetts setting. Similar to the written dialogue and performances from its cast, Manchester's visual style makes the film's portrait of the real Manchester (and its culture/the people who reside there) feel authentic and grounded. The movie allows its tone to arise in an equally organic fashion, rather than forcing drama and/or jokes that involve its various working-class characters - resulting in many scenes that succeed at being funny, awkward and heartbreaking all at once (and feel all the more true to life as a result).
Casey Affleck serves as the backbone for Manchester by the Sea, delivering a moving yet understated performance as Lee Chandler: an emotionally-gutted person whose tragic past is gradually (and effectively) revealed over the course of the first half of the film. Through smart editing by Jennifer Lame (Frances Ha, Paper Towns), Manchester by the Sea smoothly integrates flashbacks to Lee's past into its present-day scenes in a logical stream of consciousness manner. The way in which Manchester by the Sea fully reveals the backstory for Lee and his family/loved ones partway through the narrative, rather than saving its biggest reveals for its final act, makes those revelations all the more emotionally powerful and enriches the performances from the film's cast, in ways that a more 'traditional' approach might not have done otherwise.
Lucas Hedges as Patrick Chandler is, in some ways, as much the emotional anchor for Manchester by the Sea as Affleck is - convincingly portraying a character who, being a teenager who (naturally) doesn't have the same amount of emotional baggage as the adults around him do, deals with the loss and pain in his own life in very different ways than Lee. The relationship between Lee and Patrick serves as the emotional core of Manchester by the Sea, with the majority of the film's running time being composed of scenes with the two by themselves together (in more ways than one, of course). Michelle Williams and Kyle Chandler have smaller roles to play here by comparison, but very much shine during their scenes as, respectively, Lee's ex-wife Randi and Joe Chandler - Lee's brother and Patrick's father, who for years served as the glue keeping the larger Chandler family together.
The Manchester by the Sea supporting casting is strong too and deliver humane (as well as relatable) performances of their own - with noteworthy work from C.J. Wilson as George (a friend of the Chandlers, Joe's in particular), as well as Gretchen Mol as Elise (Joe's ex-wife and Patrick's mother). Characters actors Heather Burns and Matthew Broderick also show up in brief, but memorable appearances here, in scenes that further succeed at maintaining the slice of life feel that defines the majority of the film - aptly blending pathos with humor that arises naturally from the the characters and the scenarios in which they find themselves.
Manchester by the Sea is the rare film that fully explores the ripple effects that tragedy can have on not just the life of a person, but those around them; as opposed to using a tragic event as a cheap plot point that has a superficial dramatic effect on the story being told. Coupled with the emotionally-raw (and believable) performances from its ensemble cast and the observant writing/direction from Kenneth Lonergan and Manchester by the Sea makes for one of the best (and most quietly insightful) dramas of the year. Manchester isn't the only film playing in theaters right now that looks at how people experience grief and emotional suffering - but it's certainly the best one.