‘Manchester by the Sea’ is a masterful depiction of realistic grieving

Sunday, December 11, 2016 - 4:21pm

What’s most revealing about “Manchester by the Sea” is that once one adjusts to the perfection of the performances, the stunningly human characters and the way the script unfolds both the turns of its story and the psyche of its lead, it’s an incredibly funny movie. There are tears and somber scenes galore, and the movie itself is by no means a comedy, but there is also laughter. That laughter reveals the film’s genius. Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan (“You Can Count on Me”) uses “Manchester by the Sea” to hold a mirror to life and reveal that, even in its darkest times, there are moments of levity. The result is an achingly real portrait of grief and family, a true masterpiece.

The film centers around Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck, “Gone Baby Gone”), who must return to his hometown of Manchester after the death of his brother. To call Affleck good in the role would be the greatest understatement of the year. He is absolutely captivating. Everything, down to his sideways glances and beats of silence, adds up to his most towering performance so far. Michelle Williams (“Shutter Island”) plays Lee’s ex-wife, Randi, and while Williams is only given about ten minutes of screen time, she uses it to deliver one of the most emotionally devastating monologues in recent memory, in arguably the best scene of the film.

The focus of “Manchester by the Sea” isn’t on Lee and Randi, though; it’s on Lee and his young nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges, “Moonrise Kingdom”). The scenes between Hedges and Affleck are the most dynamic of the movie, and it’s from them that the movie draws most of its humor and heart. Whether the two are sniping at each other or helping each other navigate their way through their shared grief, there is a full-formed relationship on display that is all too rarely seen represented on screen. The chemistry between the two actors aids in this as their characters struggle for the possibility of recapturing a bond that hasn’t been there in years but which both need more than ever.

Lonergan’s structure and script does as much character-building as his performers do. He opts for a flashback-heavy structure which, in the moment, emulates human memory. As a result, the viewer doesn’t so much feel like they’re being clued in to some piece of a larger puzzle every time they’re treated to a different time in Lee’s life. Instead, it feels like a step in the natural evolution of the character, another representation of the past he can’t let go.

In the same way, “Manchester by the Sea” doesn’t build to a typical Hollywood climax. There’s no gigantic blow-out fight between Patrick and Lee that forces them to confront their situation. There’s no breakdown where one of the two confesses his feelings in exact terms. Neither of these things is realistic, and in a movie that strives for realism in its depiction of coping, they would feel out of place. Instead, Lonergan chooses to end the film quietly, with the viewer able to infer what he or she might from the closing scenes. It’s uniquely satisfying and poignant, and a sign of Lonergan’s immense directorial maturity and faith in his audience.

“Manchester by the Sea” understands grief and sorrow in a way that few movies do. Its depiction of two people struggling to cope with changing situations that threaten to upend their lives is at once heartbreaking and heartwarming, and it’s more than likely that two people will come out of the movie with two different interpretations. What’s for certain is this: with his newest film, Kenneth Lonergan has created a masterwork, a true representation of life in all its pain and laughter.