After an awards season full of contenders I felt lukewarm about, finally one came along that completely knocked me out. Kenneth Lonergan's "Manchester by the Sea" is a flat-out masterpiece about grieving, self-destruction, and surviving personal tragedy. It features what is by far the best performance I've ever seen Casey Affleck give, and Michelle Williams nearly steals the picture with her few moments of screentime. As with Longergan's last film, "Margaret," he's created an extraordinarily textured, well-populated film universe where every minor character feels like someone living their own full life, that we're only allowed glimpses of.
Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a custodian and handyman who lives in a suburb of Boston. He lives a small, miserable existence, until one day he's brought back to his hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea by the sudden death of his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler). Lee discovers that Joe has named him as the guardian of his sixteen year-old nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). The last thing that Lee wants is to move back to Manchester, due to various demons in his past, but Patrick reists being uprooted. As Lee and Patrick navigate the days following Joe's death and their awkward family obligations, flashbacks fill in some of the details about Lee's past in Manchester, including his marriage to his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams).
There's a lot left unsaid in "Manchester by the Sea," events that are referenced but not explicitly shown. Lee informing Patrick about Joe's death, for instance, happens in frame, but too far away for us to hear. That immediately connects the audience to the other bystanders in the scene, Patrick's hockey coach (Tate Donovan) and teammates, who are watching nearby. Nearly every minor character, some with only a line or two of dialogue, seems to be living a full, rich, complex, connected life. And in that way, "Manchester by the Sea" is one of the few films I've found that has a realistic sense of community in the way that few films do. We don't need to see much of Randi, because we see the effects of her absence, and the lingering impact of her falling out with Lee.
Affleck and Hedges' performances carry the film, and they're so good. I've had trouble with some of Casey Affleck's work in the past (and I won't get into his offscreen antics), but he's always been excellent at underplaying emotions, really injecting some humanity into his characters' tragedy and heartbreak. Here, it takes a while to get peel through his layers of seeming indifference and standoffishness to realize what's actually driving him. Hedges provides a great counterbalance, a guileless smart-aleck who is dealing just fine, except when he isn't. I think it's everyone around these two that really make the film, though, the hospital workers, Patrick's friends, and other Manchester residents who Lee interacts with. It's often through them that we get the strongest sense of the small town atmosphere and close-knit community ties that affect the story so deeply. It also helps immeasurably that everyone's Boston area accents are just about perfect, adding to the sense of authenticity.
I've long admired Lonergan's writing for being chock full of little nuances. Here, it was the moments of humor that surprised me, all the ways that he found to insert lighter character beats. Even in the most crushingly sad scenes, there's a gurney that the ambulance workers can't get to fold up quite right, or a freezer door that just won't cooperate. Patrick seems to be constantly distracted or bored when Lee takes him along to wrap up Joe's business. It's not because he's a bad kid or doesn't care, but because he's busy being a teenager with a full life that he needs to get back to. Lee, by contrast, shuns connections as best he can, leading to a comically awkward evening with Patrick's girlfriend's mother, where he shuts down in the face of small talk.
As with most of my viewing experiences this year, I've been second-guessing my own reactions to this film, wondering if I liked it so much because of some unconscious bias. I don't have much reason to think this is the case, though, because I'm not a particularly ardent fan of anyone involved, and I have no special love for tragic domestic dramedies like this. Eeverything about "Manchester by the Sea" just worked for me - the tone, the humor, the characters, and how the story played out. And despite the slower pace, I was absolutely engrossed throughout. It's just a great film, and to date my favorite of 2016.