Though Manchester by the Sea harbors no shortage of kinetic style, tampering in time hops, mood swings, and an almost musical editing psychology, the driving force of the film is its outstanding sincerity. Writer and director Kenneth Lonergan’s story is extraordinarily simple and straightforward, likely easier to sum up in a single sentence than anything else you’ve seen in the theaters this year: “A guy’s brother dies, so he goes back home to hang out with his nephew.”
For sure, this is hardly material the hands of cinema haven’t puttered with time and time again. Credit again to its sincerity, Manchester by the Sea offers not a lick of concern over the precedence of its subject matter. For not an instant does Lonergan seem charged to apply commentary, subversion, or reinvention to the well-treaded trope upon which he founds his latest film. Remarkably, in resigning himself to the satisfaction of telling a good old fashioned story, he renders the all-heart Manchester by the Sea something unique.
The aforementioned “A guy” is Lee (Casey Affleck), a cantankerous handyman who is lonesome by choice… though without too much protest from surrounding public. His late brother: the far brighter-of-spirit Joe (Kyle Chandler), whose not especially sudden death at the beginning of the film leaves his teenage son Patrick (Lee Hedges) wanting for a guardian and, more immediately, some conversation.
The favorable consequence of their mutual loss is a mending of fences between Lee and the last vestige of a family he had all but left behind, for reasons you gradually come to learn. The meat of the film is the rapport rebuilt by Lee and Patrick, a pair of dingbats with little else to claim but one another’s company. An elegant complement to his closed-mouthed, matter-of-fact uncle, 16-year-old Patrick is eagerly caustic, boyishly braggadocios, and kind of a jackass when it comes to the ladies.
The compassion that Lonergan manages to communicate for each of his two leads is no mean feat, especially considering all the shit we’re forced to watch them put one another, friends, strangers, and their wives and girlfriends through. Michelle Williams plays Lee’s ex-wife—not the most generous part, but one from which she at least gets one hearty scene, in which she conjures her usual cache of magic. Patrick bounces between a pair of high school sweethearts: the affably pretentious Sylvie (Kara Hayward, whom you may recognize as the now-post-adolescent girl from Moonrise Kingdom) and the earthy chucklehead Sandy (Anna Baryshnikov—yes, she is the Baryshnikov’s daughter). A collection of other flavorful figures, notably Gretchen Mol as Patrick’s estranged mother and C.J. Wilson as family friend and delightful schmoe George, color the picturesque Massachusetts neighborhood with delightful eccentricity. But of course, it always goes back to the boys.
Again, Lonergan saddles his entire film on the backs of Affleck and Hedges, and what’s more on what they build between each other. Lee’s lifetime of heartache coupled with Hedges’ crippled experience with new grief add up to a friendship of dire necessity, and likewise to some of the saddest, sweetest, and—if you can believe it—funniest moments you’ll see in the movies all year.
Manchester by the Sea, for all its clever machinations, is as simple as that, really. A sad (consistently heartfelt, occasionally sour, often hilarious, but always sad) story of two sad guys going through one sad thing together. And though hardly the kind of film you haven’t crossed paths with before, the unparalleled honesty with which Lonergan tells his story lands it in a class all its own.
Rating: 4 out of 5 burritos
Images: Roadside Attractions/Amazon Studios
Michael Arbeiter is the East Coast Editor for Nerdist. Find him on Twitter @MichaelArbeiter.