New York Film Festival Review: Manchester by the Sea

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Kenneth Lonergan’s third feature film as director is a challenging character study that on occasion dives into the realm of the epic, displaying the mistakes we make, big and small, that shape who we are. Manchester by the Sea faces death as intimately as one has to when a close family member passes. But first, Lonergan takes his time introducing us to his lead, Lee (Casey Affleck, delivering the performance of his career). The first 20 minutes or so introduce us to his routine as a handy man in Boston. He does his job well and without a fuss. When he’s annoyed, he says what most people would only think. Affleck slowly and subtly introduces us to Lee’s damaged psyche only after the film’s awards worthy screenplay sets us on a course of difficult growth in the face of impossible self-forgiveness.

 The first major death we hear about in Manchester by the Sea is that of Lee’s brother (Kyle Chandler). Lonergan’s script brings a welcome levity to a film with a plot that so dangerously teeters on melodrama, but thankfully never succumbs. Lee’s nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges), who has been, to Lee’s surprise, left in his custody, is just an average 16-year old balancing girls with band, hockey, not having a drivers license, and now the sudden death of his father. There’s humor in the rough New England rapport Lee and Patrick spar with that pulls from everything from sex to where the body is going to be kept before it can be buried.

But the film doesn’t get by on humor and family alone. Lonergan’s direction is artful, putting a slow, classical score to shots of this quaint Massachusetts town just living and breathing through a routine cold winter. Then there’s the masterful tonal shift halfway through narratively told through flashbacks about. It’s a turning point that deserves to be treated with the gravity Lonergan captures it with. Amazingly, the film’s levity isn’t lost after this revelation, but it does change every moment in its two hour and fifteen minute runtime, demanding a second viewing while you’re just barely halfway through the first. It’s a moment handled so artistically and carefully both in the script and in the imagery that it elevates Lonergan to a new status as a director.

Even when the deliberate pacing and long runtime start to make you squirm, there’s no denying that Manchester by the Sea is nearly narratively perfect. The drama is dire and true, but the humor and authentic dialogue save the film from melodrama, instead purporting a sense of realism too few films manage to establish. The characters here are fully realized human beings, mostly thanks to Lonergan’s script and pitch-perfect performances from Affleck, Hedges, and even some of the lesser known actors with meaty roles. There may not be anything necessarily groundbreaking about Manchester by the Sea, but when your story is this well constructed, it’s more than enough. Grade: A-

By Matt Dougherty

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