“Manchester by the Sea” is getting a lot of buzz this year for awards consideration. It’s a pretty hardcore film full of heavy emotional material, generally good character interactions, and a scene-stealing scene by Michelle Williams that honestly made the film feel more real and distinct. Director and writer Kenneth Lonergan is able to balance the film’s weighty material with some lighter moments, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that all of the female characters are sidelined while the men get to develop and grieve.
Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), a handyman running from his demons, must move back to his hometown after his brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler) dies. Thinking he’ll only be there for a few weeks at most, Lee is surprised to find out that his brother has left him sole custody of his teenage nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Lee and Chandler get along, but Lee doesn’t want to be back in his hometown because it brings back too many memories of his family and past tragedies.
Meanwhile, Randi (Michelle Williams), Lee’s ex-wife, is walking on eggshells in hopes to get closure from their shared past. There are a few flashbacks that show and tell us what happened to Lee, the relationships he shared with his ex and brother. In present time, Lee is at a loss over how to handle his new life while grieving at the same time.
There is a lot of pain in “Manchester by the Sea” and it’s really hard not to become absorbed in it. Mostly because Casey Affleck does such a great job in depicting it, but also because it’s so visceral and ever-present throughout the film. The film, however, isn’t completely bogged down by a feeling of emptiness. There’s some humor, too, even though I didn’t find most of it very amusing.
The relationship between Affleck and Lucas Hedges, as his womanizing nephew, is depicted well and the two of them share a rapport that transcends grief and familial relations. Hedges’ character is slightly annoying in many instances, however, and he has a tendency to be demeaning when interacting with others besides his uncle. Most of his subplot involves him trying to get laid and his behavior isn’t really cause for much sympathy no matter how many ways I tried.
I single out Hedges’ character because, although he can grate on the nerves occasionally, he’s still a redeemable character overall. The same depth and care isn’t extended to the film’s female characters, who are often sidelined and depicted in a negative light in order to showcase the men in the film. It’s hard to overlook. It’s especially true in the case of Michelle Williams, whose character has a phenomenal, honest, and emotional scene near the very end of the film. She is barely in the movie and doesn’t really get to express her emotions until the finale and it isn’t fair that she gets shortchanged while all the males take center-stage. Her scene alone is heartbreaking and will make you truly feel the burden of tragedy more than any other character will.
“Manchester by the Sea” is gorgeously shot and filled with emotional beats that you will probably need tissues for. The performances are strong. Affleck’s character lives in constant guilt and leads a low-key lifestyle, but while his feelings are strong, they are mostly hidden behind his need to avoid them. Williams is the true MVP of the film as she’s able to speak of the weight of what happened in the past so openly. Her scene with Affleck is raw and brings to light the problems he faces coming to terms with what happened. Most of the film feels numb, because Affleck lives in an emotionally closed off bubble and seems like he’s just going through the motions; Williams is the one to coax the many unresolved feelings to the forefront. I can’t say enough about this scene in particular as it’s one of the primary reasons to see “Manchester by the Sea.”
Director and writer Kenneth Lonergan is able to balance the film's weighty material with some lighter moments, but it's hard to ignore the fact that all of the female characters are sidelined while the men get to develop and grieve.