There’s an entire genre of very shitty prestige film out there I like to call the “let’s-watch-this-asshole-self-destruct-for-90-minutes-before-we-tell-you-what-bad-thing-in-their-past-is-making-them-act-this-way” movie. We all know the kind of movie I’m talking about: the ones where sad sack protagonists forget to shave, drink alone in bars, listen to singer/songwriter music, and break down (in Oscar-friendly tear-heaps) somewhere deep in the third act. But even though Kenneth Lonergan’s new film Manchester by the Sea appears to fit this woeful subgenre to a T, the celebrated writer-director of You Can Count on Me and Margaret is in fact much smarter and more talented than all that. And Manchester, really, is nothing short of a masterpiece of American introspection.
Sure, at first the building blocks of uninspired misery-porn seem firmly in place. Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is a taciturn Boston handyman with shoulders continually slumped under the burden of some unspoken tragedy. He’s a bit of a drinker, not necessarily an alcoholic; emotions buried at least six inches deeper under his pale Irish-Catholic skin than is probably normal. One day he gets the call that his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has died from heart failure, leaving behind his 16-year-old son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), a big house, and one broken-down fishing boat that’s more or less one big rickety, diesel-spewing metaphor for the entire Chandler clan.
Lee is shocked to discover that he’s been granted guardianship of his plucky nephew, forcing the him to return home to the cloistered Massachusetts community he has good reason to want to avoid. Why this homecoming is so tortured is eventually revealed about midway through the movie—a smart move by Lonergan’s original screenplay that avoids making this melodramatic piece of backstory more important than it actually is. Instead, the focus is on Lee’s re-immersion back into the waking world, shaken from his somnambulant daze by the sudden responsibility of parenthood.
Hedge’s Patrick is a good kid—a bit of a shit and wise-ass, but perceptive and well-adjusted. His non-assholeness makes things easier, but every grasp toward normalcy and contentedness the Chandlers reach for is still its own tiny battle, with the family’s grief seemingly made manifest in the gloomy weather (Manchester takes place almost entirely during the winter).
There are other characters too: Lee’s ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams, who makes the awards-worthy most of her limited screen time), Patrick’s estranged born again mother (Gretchen Mol), rumpled family friend George (C.J. Wilson), and Patrick’s two competing girlfriends, Sandy and Silvie (Anna Baryshikov and Kara Hayward, respectively). Each character is humanely drawn, but the real achievement isn’t so much that Lonergan gives each of his creations the benefit of the doubt, but that the characters are so full of empathy and understanding for each other in ways that enriched the drama, not drain it.
Lonergan may be a subtle visual stylist, but he’s a great visual storyteller. Each frame is jam-packed with information, in the way the characters move or look at each other, the food they eat, the sports they watch, the things they give little glances to, the name of the Chandlers’ boat; everything. Manchester is hyper-controlled, detail-oriented filmmaking at its most masterful—not as sprawling and ambitious as the troubled Margaret, but arguably even more successful in its ability to catch glimpses of light off the invisible threads that bind people together. If Margaret was a movie about how self-centeredness blinds us to fate, Manchester is the story of loss giving way to rebirth in a way that feels highly truthful and authentic.
So where does Lonergan go from here? By any metric, this one-0f-a-kind auteur is three-for-three. And at a time when unique and individual creative voices suddenly seem more imperiled than ever, it’s critical for us as movie lovers to avail ourselves of the opportunity so use art to heal our souls. In this, Manchester by the Sea is completely nourishing—and one of the very best films of the year. Go “sea” it today.