Movie Review: ‘MANCHESTER BY THE SEA’ – hooked on a feeling

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Preston Barta // Features Editor

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA
Rated R, 137 minutes.
Director: Kenneth Lonergan
Cast: Casey AffleckLucas HedgesMichelle Williams, Kyle Chandler and Gretchen Mol

This weekend may be dedicated to Black Friday shopping and the latest GILMORE GIRLS episodes, but if you find yourself craving the kind of movie that makes you smile through the tears and hold your loved ones tighter, MANCHESTER BY THE SEA soars as one of the year’s very best.

The film’s beautifully wrought story begins in Quincy, Massachusetts, where we find Casey Affleck’s Lee Chandler, a solitary jack-of-all-trades at a local apartment complex. He’s a man with a great deal of pain behind his eyes who’s oblivious to flirtatious attendants and doesn’t give much of a damn when it comes to another provocation.

The catalyst is the passing of his older brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), whose heart gave out due to his congenital disorder. This unfortunate news sends Lee up the coast to face further news of his brother making him the sole guardian of his teenage son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges).

The tragic departure of a family member or friend is something that changes the manner in which we deal with others in a permanent way. Even though it is said that grief is an indescribable feeling, MANCHESTER BY THE SEA does a remarkable job of accurately portraying it.

Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges star in MANCHESTER BY THE SEA. Courtesy of Amazon Studios.

Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges star in MANCHESTER BY THE SEA. Courtesy of Amazon Studios.

Instead of spoon-feeding us what’s eating at Lee, filmmaker Kenneth Lonergan (Margaret, writer of Gangs of New York) gives us subtle hints throughout before unveiling the truth of his character at the most opportune time. Through the film’s seamlessly woven flashbacks and bittersweet tone, the audience is asked to participate in its devastating puzzle assemblage.

As emotionally draining as the material can be at times, especially one sequence involving Lee’s former lover (a terrific Michelle Williams) and their children, Lonergan’s award-worthy script captures the humor and heartache of real life. It doesn’t play toward Hollywood’s standards or wallow in either drama or comedy. Lonergan knows when audiences need to laugh and lament.

As impressive as Lonergan’s words is Affleck’s performance. Time and time again, Affleck (brother to Ben) has proven himself to be the more talented sibling in front of the camera. He knows how to immerse himself so deeply into a role where you forget you’re watching a performance. He brings all of his rigor to this rendition of Lee’s torment.

To match Affleck’s top-tier performance is Hedges (MOONRISE KINGDOM). The way in which Hedges and Affleck pick at each other like brothers, with each new insult stinging more than the one that preceded it, shows how much these two need each other to muster the strength to go on. It’s a sensible touch applied by Lonergan that’s rare among movies seen today.

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA may not have the neat resolution you want, but it features tangible characters whose lives you want to be a part of and an unforgettable experience that’s rich with all of life’s pain and joy.

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA opens in limited release on Friday, with an expanded release in the following weeks.
Dallas: Magnolia Theatre in Dallas, Angelika Film Center in Plano

About author

Preston Barta

Hello, there! My name is Preston Barta, and I am the features editor of Fresh Fiction and senior film critic at the Denton Record-Chronicle. My cinematic love story began where I was born: off planet on the isolated desert world of the Jakku system. It's there I passed the time scavenging for loose parts with my good friend Rey. One day I found an old film projector and a dusty reel of the 1975 film JAWS. It rocked my world so much that I left my kinfolk in the rearview (I so miss their morning cups of green milk) to pursue my dreams of writing about film. It wasn't long until I met two gents who said they would give me a lift. I can't recall their names, but one was an older man who liked to point a lot and the other was a tall, hairy fella. They got me as far as one of Jupiter's moons where we crossed paths with the U.S.S. Enterprise. Some pointy-eared bastard said I was clear to come aboard. He saw that I was clutching my beloved shark movie and invited me to the "moving pictures room" where he was screening the 1993 film JURASSIC PARK to his crew. He said my life would be much more prosperous if I were familiar with more work by the god named Steven Spielberg. From there, my love for cinema blossomed. Once we reached planet Earth, everything changed. I found the small town of Denton, TX, and was welcomed into the Barta family. They showed me the writings of local film critic Boo Allen. He became my hero and caused me to chase a degree in film and journalism. After my studies at graduate of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, I met some film critics who showed me the ropes and got me into my first press screening: 2011's THE GREEN LANTERN. Don't worry; I recovered just fine. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD was only four years away.

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