Casey Affleck is outstanding as Lee Chandler, a New England uncle who is legally supposed to take care of his 16-year-old nephew Patrick ‘Patti’ (Lucas Hedges) when the boy’s father (Kyle Chandler) dies suddenly and makes him guardian in his will, without having told him about it.
Though Patti is entirely nice and likeable, nobody seems to want to look after the totally lost kid till he is old enough to inherit his dad’s house, money and boat when he is 21. Affleck is more than reluctant, the mother (Gretchen Mol) is an ex-alcoholic Christian, now married to boring Rodney (Matthew Broderick), and the other uncle (C J Wilson) is too busy getting on with his own life and family.
Affleck’s ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams) reappears to attend the funeral with her new hubby Josh (Liam McNeill) and her baby. She wants to try to reconnect somehow. This is one heck of a dysfunctional extended family!
Meanwhile, Patrick is trying to have sex with his classmates, and is in trouble with the hockey coach (Tate Donovan) but is trying to bond with Affleck. Then, with Affleck finally picking up the challenge of looking after Patrick, the kid won’t relocate to Boston with him because his whole life is there in Manchester by the Sea – school, girls, hockey team etc. Affleck has to get out of Manchester, the scene of all his troubles.
That really isn’t much of a plot is it? Of course, it is reminiscent of one of those classic Russian plays – shall we relocate to Moscow? And their plots aren’t much fun either.
Affleck, by the way, plays a janitor/ handyman, unblocking ungrateful or lustful women’s blocked toilets. It is hard to accept Affleck as a janitor, or understand why his character who seems so bright, clever and perceptive, could possibly be stuck unclogging bogs for a pathetic living.
Still, Affleck makes you totally believe in his devastated character, and the flashbacks show clearly why he is so destroyed and stuck. Affleck has to play an introverted, mumbling, awkward character who has sudden bursts of rage and violence. It’s a tough stretch, but he’s really up for it. Not many actors could pull this off, but Affleck is in there, and does, triumphantly. Hedges is also tremendous, giving as good as he gets.
The film is a tangled web of relationships, but, still, there is no actual story, though there is something of a resolution and character development. Premiered at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival and shown at the London Film Festival, it is very much a festival film par excellence, a great mood, atmosphere and character piece.
Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan, who also wrote Analyze This and Gangs of New York, certainly writes interesting characters and good dialogue, but the film rambles over 135 minutes. It still grips, entertains and moves, though it perhaps would entertain a lot more half an hour shorter.
And it is memorable for that admirable actor Affleck. It is not the career defining performance of the publicity, but it is still a broodingly impressive one, very young Marlon Brando. His rapport with Hedges is the best thing in the film, and their relationship and dialogue are engrossing in a way that the rest of the film can’t quite manage.
Shot by cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes, the seaside picture postcard views are very attractive, and Lonergan gives us a vivid idea of the place, yet another character in a movie overladen with them. Alas, that means no proper roles for Broderick or Donovan, and that is a pity for these neglected actors. Williams and Mol don’t get much screen time either, but they make their mark.
Manchester-by-the-sea, on the north shore of Massachusetts, was originally called plain old Manchester until 1989 when resident Edward Corley led a controversial campaign to change its name.
Casey Affleck won the 2017 Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture – Drama.
The London Film Critics’ Circle voted Affleck Actor of the Year and Lonergan Screenwriter of the Year.
© Derek Winnert 2016 Movie Review
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