Extraordinary is not a word I use often, but I use it now to describe the film, Manchester By The Sea. When a producer sets out to make a movie from this kind of material, he/she had better create an extraordinary film. Manchester By The Sea meets every definition of extraordinary.
Casey Affleck plays a janitor working in Boston who reluctantly returns to his hometown after his brother dies. His brother has designated him to be guardian of his nephew. This is a story of family and its connections and sorrows, its humor and love. The film examines the nature of grief and how it can tear lives apart. Affleck’s character had suffered an unspeakable tragedy several years before. Lucas Hedges plays the son/nephew, who is dealing with his grief and, at the same time, his need to just be a teenager. His estranged mother, played by Gretchen Mol, is so damaged by her own problems and her guilt that she can hardly bear to be in the company of her son. Michele Williams, always so good, plays Affleck’s ex-wife, doing what he cannot: moving past their shared loss and on with a life. This flawless supporting cast holds up their end.
Affleck deserves every accolade and award. He journeys through this film like a throbbing ulcer eating away at its host and life source. He is beyond healing and yet he loves. Michele Williams and Affleck share a scene that is so human, so poignant, that despite their pain, you cannot look away.
I reviewed the works of Kenneth Lonergan, who wrote the original screenplay and directed this remarkable film, to try to understand how he came up with this cinematic masterpiece. Good movies fill his resume, but all I could find that might have brought him to this zenith is the on-going labor of writing and directing excellent movies like You Can Count On Me and Analyze This.
The backdrop is the New England coast in winter, at its bleakest and most beautiful and with all its perils. When they are out in the boat, I felt their exhilaration and their fear of what could happen. But they were born there, it is their culture, their heritage. The sea is their life and their love for it, in all its complexity, is apparent. It provides the perfect framework for this film.
Manchester By The Sea has been called the most depressing movie of the year. Maybe. But it’s also the most honest and riveting. Its mood is dispiriting (and sometimes funny) yet wholly relatable. The dialogue is economical, every word effective. Emotions are spent judiciously and never gratuitously. At one point, I found tears running down my face and I heard sniffles in the seats next to me.
I am grateful to all the reviewers who did not reveal plot specifics, and I will follow suit. Revelations may have kept me away, and Manchester By The Sea is one of the best movies I’ve seen this year. It rings true—real people in real relationships living real lives, truth in every frame, and I go to the movies looking for just this: real life forged in art.