„Manchester by the Sea“ is an intriguing study of grief and trauma. At the same time, it is also a fascinating dance between cinematic storytelling and an understated character study. Director Kenneth Lonergan finds the perfect mix to pull his audience in and keep them engaged for the whole length of the film. The story follows Lee Chandler, who is drawn back to his old home in Manchester (New England, not Great Britain), after his brother died. We follow him as he takes charge of the situation, trying to handle the immediate challenges of any tragic death. In the process, he finds out that his brother named him guardian for his son, expecting him to move back to Manchester, which is a hard step for Lee for several reasons.
The centrepiece of this film is Casey Affleck’s performance as Lee. There is no other way to put this, he feels like a completely real person. I don’t usually come out of movies thinking “oh, that was clearly an actor”, that’s what suspension of disbelief is there for. But compared to this performance, some of Affleck’s colleagues look like grade school theatre. He avoids great gestures whenever he can, thus forcing you to look closer and be drawn into the character even further.
And that deep investment is what makes Lonergan’s use of flashbacks even more powerful. Whereas the main story of the film is extremely low-key when it comes to cinematic devices, the flashbacks engage in wilful control of knowledge, inserted precisely where they will have the largest impact. And what an impact they have.
Special mention should also be made of Lucas Hedges, who plays Lee’s nephew Patrick, and Michelle Williams as Lee’s ex-wife. Our experience is centred on Lee, but both Patrick and Michelle play an integral part in his grieving process, as he does in theirs.
And the words “grieving process” are central to this movie. This film doesn’t play to your expectations, and it isn’t over when it ends. The characters feel so real, because I felt like they continued to exist and struggle after I left the cinema. I also felt like there was more to their past I wasn’t told. It is really quite amazing.