Manchester by the Sea may not be the season’s feel-good movie, but it is one of the best, and Casey Affleck will be tough to beat for Best Actor honors come Oscar time.
Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan (it’s hard to believe this is only his third film) the film is a searing look at grief and the ties of family, and even though it is steeped in tragedy, it has a rude humor to it, I am somewhat familiar with the part of Massachusetts where it takes place (and was filmed) and they get that right, too, with the gray skies and serene but forbidding ocean.
The story is pretty simple: Affleck plays a man living a life of quiet desperation in a one-room basement apartment, working as a maintenance man in Boston. One day he gets a call–his brother, who has a history of heart trouble, is in the hospital. By the time he gets up the coast, his brother is dead. He is astounded at the reading of the will to discover that he has been entrusted guardianship of his nephew, a teenager (Lucas Hedges). The boy’s mother is an alcoholic who spent time in a psych ward.
Despite his love for his nephew, Affleck is aghast at this. He doesn’t want to leave Boston, and when we consider that he gets a free house and an income from his brother’s estate, we wonder why. But it is slowly revealed that Affleck has an ex-wife in town (Michelle Williams) and has dealt with tragedy before, and the good times he spent on his brother’s boat with his nephew can’t compensate for his loss.
Don’t let the somber nature of this film scare you away. The dialogue is brimming with humor, especially the sparring of Affleck and Hedges. Affleck discovers Hedges basically has a dream life–he is on the hockey team, in a band, and has two girlfriends. He is sleeping with one, but the other has only progressed to “basement stuff.” In one absurdly funny scene, Hedges enlists Affleck to keep his girlfriend’s mother distracted while he has sex with his girlfriend in her room.
The film is long, but moves by quickly. Lonergan and editor Jennifer Larne have seamlessly intercut flashbacks. In one scene, when a doctor is taking Affleck to the morgue to see his brother, there’s a cut to a scene with the brother (Kyle Chandler) very much alive in a hospital bed, being told of his condition. There’s an initial “wait a minute” moment, but then we understand and after that, without use of changing Affleck’s appearance (it would have been easy to give him a beard or something in flashbacks) we instinctively know when we are in flashback.
The performances are all top-notch. Williams only has a few scenes, but one of them is a doozy, when she runs into Affleck with her baby from another husband and apologizes to him, and he just can’t take it. Hedges, who was in Moonlight Kingdom (thought I don’t remember him in it, but one of his girlfriends is played by Kara Hayward, who was the young lead in that film) is a future star. But it’s Affleck’s movie. I’ve read that Matt Damon was initially to play the part (and direct) and then John Krasinski (who ended up producing) but for whatever qualities they have Affleck is the right choice. He’s a broken man, a shell of himself, and the weariness shows on his face. One particular moment sticks with me. He has at his brother’s funeral and meets Williams’ new husband for the first time. He doesn’t say anything, but they way his eyes wander over his man shows us what he’s thinking. It’s a wonderful performance.
I haven’t seen everything yet, and I haven’t quite sorted out what my favorite film of the year is yet, but it just may be Manchester by the Sea.