Once in a while a film comes along that reminds you just why you go to the movies in the first place. None too often does something this utterly heart wrenching and beautiful unfold in front of your eyes. It’s an immersive tale so simply done, but so complex in emotional range.
Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is a handyman with a damaged past, contently living in Boston in squalor. His world is turned upside down and past demons unleashed when his brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler) dies and names Lee as guardian to his 16-year-old son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). We see how a working class family struggles with life’s challenges, and as Lee’s past is revealed through a series of flashbacks, we as an audience begin to wonder, are there some things in life that can’t be fixed?
Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan (2011’s “Margaret”) paints a masterful portrait of working-class New England daily life. The subtlety by which he establishes the setting and the character relationships harkens to “Good Will Hunting” in equal parts heartbreak and hope. Sweeping shots of the fishing towns and the appeal of a simple life working on the water punctuates the drama effectively with whimsical sentimentality. What tugs at the heartstrings more than the direction, which does have some shaky moments when the camera is moving, is the pure realism of the story.
Affleck’s acting is a thing of genius. His resume is quietly becoming more impressive than his better-known brother, Ben (see his unnoticed performance in 2013’s “Out of the Furnace”). His natural and effortless façade is one of the most authentic performances I’ve seen in a long time. His character has buried his pain deep, and we see moments of it bubbling to the surface, but he maintains his composure perfectly. The professionalism is easy to miss if you aren’t paying close attention, but it’s a clinic on acting if you are. He can next be seen as Meriwether Lewis in an upcoming TV mini-series.
The supporting cast of Michelle Williams, Hedges, Chandler and Gretchen Mol do a fantastic job surrounding Affleck and elevating him to what will certainly be the performance for which he will be remembered years from now. Williams delivers a typical Oscar-worthy performance, but her screen time is limited, which upon reflection is a good move by Lonergan to avoid overshadowing the point of the story. Hedges is a rising star who holds his own opposite the veterans, and he adds some much-needed levity that often gets left out of emotional powerhouses.
“Manchester by the Sea” is a rare cinematic achievement that is completely satisfying, captivating and raw. Amazon Studios is emerging with some serious competition to the heavyweight contenders, which further proves my theory about the corporate behemoth’s impending global dominance.
As awards season officially begins, I guarantee that “Manchester by the Sea” will receive its share of Oscar nominations, and at this point, I predict it will take home its share of wins, including Best Picture. It sets a nearly unachievable cinematic bar of artistry and emotion that will leave you teary-eyed, and it’s certainly an experience worth the price of admission and then some.