An Extremely Human Story
Filmmaker Kenneth Lonergan follows up the success of his two previous directorial efforts, You Can Count on Me (2000) and Margaret (2011), with Manchester by the Sea, a film that knocked Ďem dead at this yearís Sundance and promises equal praise as it releases wide around the country this week. Lonergan is certainly a talented director, but it is his brilliant writing that sets the man apart from his peers. Few are capable of capturing human emotions the way Lonergan does, and no other filmmaker seems as adept at making actors feel like real people. We donít watch his movies. Rather, we experience them. We become voyeurs into the raw and honest lives of real human beings.
We first meet Lee Chandler as a Boston handyman charged with the custodial duties of a series of working class apartment buildings. Heís good at unclogging toilets, changing light bulbs, and fixing leaks. But heís terrible at human relationships. Heís quiet, genial and prefers to keep to himself inside his sparse one-room apartment. But he always seems on the verge of a fit of rage. Social interaction certainly isnít a strong suit.
Via flashbacks, we see Lee in much happier days. He enjoys fishing with his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) and nephew Patrick (played as a young boy by Ben OíBrien). Thereís an encouraging light about him, a jovial spirit to his demeanor, and pep in his voice.
We also learn that, in his earlier days, Lee was a somewhat fun-loving party animal who spent many a night drinking with the boys in the basement game room while infuriated wife Randi (Michelle Williams) tended to their three young children. Itís clear that something went devastatingly wrong with the marriage, but itís not until the filmís halfway point that we learn what changed Lee. Itís a devastating and truly heartbreaking turn of events. However, Lonergan doesnít focus on the event itself but rather with how we humans deal with tragedy. Some figure it out, mourn appropriately, and get on with their lives. Others never get over it. Lee is of the latter ilk. He is a man in pain.
Meanwhile, upon learning of the death of his brother back in Manchester, Lee gets tasked with tending to Joeís final affairs, which includes what to do with his 15-year-old nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) who has yet to come to grips with the loss of his father. Stipulations in Joeís will designate Lee as Patrickís guardian and that he must move back to Manchester to raise him. But gone are the fun-loving days of fishing with his nephew, replaced by the haunting nightmares of coming back home to face the greatest tragedy of his life.
Lonergan expertly immerses his tale of the power of familial love, community, and sacrifice in a rich New England sense of place that perfectly reflects the filmís gloomy overtone with gray skies and a dismal, barren landscape. Some of his extended establishing shots featuring the barren northeastern Massachusetts coastline feel a bit forced as they play beneath Lesley Barberís often jarring score. Lonerganís flashbacks arenít always seamless and occasionally seem to pop up out of nowhere for no clear reason.
Lonergan really excels when pointing his camera at people. He is clearly an actorís director, and his ability to get the most from his performers is a rare but beautiful thing to experience. His richly drawn characters come to life with an honest authenticity that makes us believe. Weíre deeply invested in every one of them and our heart aches as each struggles with the life-changing decisions that come their way.
There isnít a convenient conclusion to Manchester by the Sea, nor does it wrap things up into a nicely-tied bow. Thatís just not how life is. Itís an extremely human story of how grief and depression can eat away at the soul and leave its victims a hollowed-out shell. Youíll be blown way by the warmth and rawness of the emotional spectrum with which Lonergan crafts his story. Manchester by the Sea is one of the yearís best films and certainly one of the seasonís must-sees. Youíll laugh, and youíll cry, but mostly youíll see how, at any moment, life can be changed. Itís how we choose to deal with lifeís curve balls that defines who we are.
(Released by Roadside Attractions and rated ďRĒ for language throughout and some sexual content.)
Review also posted at www.franksreelreviews.com.