Imagine a film movement based on the idea that the observational telling of ordinary working-class stories in America would be interesting. Not many filmmakers are making movies like that now. The third feature from dramatist-turned-filmmaker Kenneth Lonergan could help many people realize that it’s worth paying attention.
In his powerful, deeply touching slice-of-family-life drama “Manchester by the Sea,” sequence after sequence hits home. It wasn’t designed to impart lessons but to tell a story exceedingly true to life that is devastating and generous and life-affirming. It is the sort of movie there aren’t enough of. It does not look or sound factory-made, but recalls the wrenched-from-the-heart work of John Cassavetes.
It is pretty close to magnificent.
The screenplay is character-driven, focusing on people the world normally doesn’t give much scrutiny to. Casey Affleck brilliantly portrays a gruff, levelheaded condo custodian, Lee Chandler, who values the cavelike solitude of his efficiency flat. Deliberately withdrawn, he’s OK with eking by on minimum wage, privacy and a free room. Filmed in a manner of appropriate dowdy realism, the film presents a sensitive depiction of working-class life without sentimentality, never jerking tears.
Affleck’s screen presence is tight and dry. You’re not aware of any performance, yet he is totally immersed in his character and enhances every shot. His very stillness radiates an actor’s tension. His heavy-lidded eyes carry a depth of feeling even when he’s drinking alone in silence. Long before the story reveals who Lee is by cutting back and forth between past and present, Affleck shows us how he is: an introverted shell of a man. He has a strong enough presence to carry the film through its quiet passages.
A phone call about an emergency in his small family draws Lee back to his oceanside New England hometown, where his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler, giving strong competition in the scenes they share) ferries around fishing parties. As Lee helps his relations cope with the crisis, reports of his arrival pass around Manchester in hushed whispers.
Impeccably timed flashbacks introduce us to the loving bond Joe and Lee shared, and to their challenging former wives. Randi (Michelle Williams in breathtaking form) was Lee’s stern better half, a whip-cracking enforcer with strict orders about when their children slept and Lee’s “pinhead” drinking buddies were ordered to go home. Elise (Gretchen Mol) is a malcontent alcoholic who pulled out of her marriage to Joe and vanished years ago, leaving their son Patrick (Lucas Hedges), a jokingly sarcastic high schooler, temporarily in his sulky uncle Lee’s unwilling care. Lee can’t stand remaining in Manchester any longer, and Patrick refuses to relocate to Boston, away from his school, hockey team, rock band and two girlfriends.
The rest of the story shows how that strained relationship teaches both of them that even amid emotionally harrowing disasters, life goes on. Howling with friction, grief and even happiness, the pair lead each other to a metamorphosis. Lee reveals a bit of his guarded heart, and Patrick grows.
“Manchester by the Sea” takes its viewers on an unforgettable journey and leaves them absolutely speechless in the end. On all levels, this is an important film. It’s a weepie that gives you a lift. Strongly recommended. Multiple viewings advised.
“Manchester by the Sea”
Starring Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams and Kyle Chandler. Directed by Kenneth Lonergan.
Rated R for language throughout and some sexual content. Check listings for theaters. 2 hours, 15 minutes.
Bottom line: A powerful, deeply touching slice-of-life drama