Kenneth Lonergan is a master when it comes to intricate character studies. He has an uncanny ability to convey both mundane and awkward moments of life in an emotionally honest way. This is especially true in times when certain conversations desperately need to be had, but the deep-rooted scars are just too great for his characters to put into words. One needs to look no further for examples of this than his latest film Manchester by the Sea.
Lee (Casey Affleck) is a handy man who finds it difficult to connect with his clients and the greater community at large. Aside from the occasional bar fight, the perpetually sullen Lee wants nothing more than to be left alone. His plans for a solitary life are thrown for a loop when he learns that his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has died due to a congenital heart condition. To add to the shocking news, Joe’s will stated that he wants Lee to be the guardian of his teenage son Patrick (Lucas Hedges).
Barely able to keep his own life together, Lee cannot fathom adding another soul to his small bubble of an existence in Boston. Furthermore, he neglects to consider how this will impact Patrick’s world as well. A popular kid at his high school, Patrick’s life in Manchester is a comfortable one. He plays in a band, is on the hockey team, and is juggling two girlfriends who do not know about each other. As Lee and Patrick try to make sense of the situation that has thrown them together, Lee is forced to confront his past life in Manchester and the scars that still linger.
Trusting in his audience, Lonergan’s film flows at its own confident pace, never once feeling the need to overstate the emotions at play. Lee’s past is revealed gradually, but Lonergan only provides just enough information for the audience to fill in the missing pieces themselves. He gives his actors and the dialogue, which has a surprising amount of humour given the subject matter, room to breathe. Ultimately allowing the themes of grief and guilt to deeply resonate.
Providing one of the best performances of his career, Casey Affleck is note perfect as the emotionally stunted Lee. One truly feels the combination of sadness, rage and guilt that is devouring the character from the inside out. Michelle Williams also gives a strong supporting turn as Lee’s estranged ex-wife. Their scenes together are absolutely heartbreaking when taking in the full context of their relationship. However, it is Lucas Hedges who is the real breakout star of the film. Carrying the charisma of a young Matt Damon, Hedges has the difficult task of not only providing levity to the film, but also matching the emotional weight of Affleck’s performance, a task that the young actor proves more than capable of handling.
A masterclass in filmmaking, narrative, and performances, there are few films that can match Manchester by the Sea’s overall punch. It is easily one of the best films you will see this year.
This review was originally published as part of our TIFF 2016 coverage.