2016-12-23 / Ticket

A seamless real-life masterpiece: ‘Manchester by the Sea’

Times Record Staff

CASEY AFFLECK in a scene from “Manchester By The Sea.” 
CLAIRE FOLGER/ROADSIDE ATTRACTIONS AND AMAZON STUDIOS VIA AP CASEY AFFLECK in a scene from “Manchester By The Sea.” CLAIRE FOLGER/ROADSIDE ATTRACTIONS AND AMAZON STUDIOS VIA AP “Manchester by the Sea” is the type of film you wish would keep going, but you couldn’t possibly ask anything more of.

The story revolves around Casey Affleck’s character, Lee Chandler, a Boston handyman that seems dead inside. He moves from building to building unclogging toilets, shoveling snow and painting walls with little to no positive emotion and eventually receives a phone call that forces him to drive back up to his hometown.

We learn Chandler is dead inside long before we find out why he’s so reluctant to go back to Manchester-by-the-Sea (a real town on the northern coast of Massachusetts, with a population of roughly 5,000), but the circumstances more than serve as a proper build-up to the unspeakable tragedy he can’t get past.

Lee’s brother Joe, played by Kyle Chandler, has suddenly passed away and he’s called on Lee to be the guardian of his 16-year-old son, Patrick. The problem is they never discussed it and as director/writer Kenneth Lonergan (“You Can Count on Me,” “Margaret”) made clear in the opening minutes of the film, Lee is far from fit to be a parent. Not like he used to be.

His relationship with Patrick is one you might expect from a deeply scarred uncle and a grieving nephew. It’s often awkward, unsure and filled with profanity. But like just about everything in “Manchester by the Sea,” it’s incredibly real.

Matt Damon, a producer of the film, was originally set to direct and star as Lee, and despite what he brings to the screen, the story benefited greatly from his scheduling conflicts (“The Martian”). It’s tough to imagine Damon in such a hard-hitting, small-town role that demands so much. He’s a far cry from the young, feisty Boston janitor in “Good Will Hunting.”

Affleck, however, plays Lee to perfection. His scruffy hair, worn-out t-shirts and bar fights are fitting because they’re real. When Lonergan finally gives us the source of his grief in a somehow seamless, gut-wrenching flashback, it’s heartbreaking not only in nature, but because Lee was content just prior. In an earlier flashback of the same night, we see him drunk, laughing and messing around with friends in the basement. It’s one of the few times in the film we see Lee smiling.

The contrast of what happens later in the evening is dangerously sharp, and it’s Affleck that makes it so devastating. Lonergan said, “People find ways to live with tragedy. But some people don’t. And maybe they deserve to get a movie about them, too.” They certainly do, and Affleck follows up noteworthy roles in “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” “Gone Baby Gone,” and “Out of the Furnace” with an unquestioned career best.

His Oscar-worthy performance dominates the screen and carries you seamlessly through the story. The entire film is seamless.

Lee Chandler is a fascinating character that intersects with a vulnerable teenager in need of an adult figure in his life. Sure, Patrick has two girlfriends, cusses at his hockey coach and is sometimes unlikeable. He’s flawed, just like Lee is flawed. And by the end of the film, they need each other.

That’s why the plot details don’t matter. You trust Lonergan as a storyteller very early on and know that whatever happens to Lee and Patrick will be authentic. It might be troubling and it might be painful, but real life often is. “Manchester by the Sea” is about real life.

So much so that arguably its most impactful scene takes place in a beat up old alleyway of Manchester-by-the-Sea. While Lee is still in town taking care of funereal arrangements and living with Patrick, he runs into his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams). Randi is walking with her friend and newborn son and stops Lee to talk.

She “doesn’t have anything big to say,” but wants to apologize for things she said to him after the accident. She admits that, despite a new husband and a new child, she loves Lee. “Maybe she shouldn’t say that,” but Lee tells her she’s allowed to say that. He can’t stay and talk and he can’t have lunch with her in the future, but she’s allowed to say that.

How is that one of most memorable and impactful scenes in “Manchester by the Sea” involves a character that’s on screen for just a few minutes? Michelle Williams deserves a lot of the credit and will have a fourth chance at an Oscar. Primarily, though, it’s because Lonergan’s dialogue is impeccable. As if he took his camera crew up to a little town in Massachusetts and somehow came across a startling example of pure, raw human emotion.

It’s the kind of story that can only take place in a town like Manchester-by-the-Sea. A story that’s too big for Hollywood. Lonergan has absolute control over it and in just his third feature film, he’s created a masterpiece.

The scenes that make it so touching are the ones that maybe even he wasn’t planning on. The scenes where Patrick tells Lee “Let’s just go” and Lee thinks he means let’s drive away and not go see his dead father inside the hospital, so he floors it while Patrick is getting out of the car. They shout, they tell each other off and they apologize.

They co-exist in a town, in a life, that is severely messed up. So messed up that the every-day moviegoer can relate to it. It’s not often that a filmmaker is so brutally honest with the audience.


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