Lee Chandler brought loneliness on himself. People were ready to help after the tragedy at the breaking heart of Manchester by the Sea. Now they whisper behind his back.
Lee bolted in grief from the Massachusetts village lending its name to Kenneth Lonergan's aching, arcing tale of something like redemption. Lee can't go home again but must, not needing to confront the past since it's in his face every day.
Lonergan keeps what happened hidden in the whispers until late. By then, this blue collar wordsmith and Casey Affleck's portrayal transform a sullen handyman picking fights for self-abuse into someone with upside in spite of himself. Someone deserving a better, if not entirely happy, ending.
Manchester by the Sea is one of 2016's dramatic highlights, a character study unfolding with mystery and regret, inspiring a lead performance deserving any awards coming its way. Affleck brings a wounded charisma to Lee and a beaten-down slouch to his posture and mumble. His work is full of quiet surprises, moments that would be larger — and likely not as moving — from other actors.
First, Lonergan efficiently shows what Lee has become, 90 miles and a world away from Manchester by the Sea. He's replacing light bulbs and fixing sinks in an apartment complex for tenants hoping to bargain, flirt or just engage in small talk, all curtly refused. At night Lee's a barfly, masochistically goading drunks bigger than he. What's eating this guy?
Then, a bolt of tragedy: Lee's idolized older brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler in flashbacks), dies of a heart attack. The only thing about home that Lee missed is gone, so ironically he must return. The discomfort is compounded when Joe's will names Lee as legal guardian for his teenage nephew Patrick (impressive newcomer Lucas Hedges) and Lee's ex-wife, Randi (Michelle Williams), offers condolences and bad memories.
Lonergan writes beyond such character types to the essence of their motivations, writing dialogue that reveals without saying much. Patrick's situation could be its own movie, a suddenly independent teen with a dream. The emotional walls built between Lee and Randi have been countless movies yet seldom so rawly chipped away.
There is collateral damage, enabling Lonergan to populate Manchester by the Sea with interesting side characters peeling away narrative layers. Patrick's wrestling coach (Tate Donovan) adds dimension to his rebellion, while Joe's charter boat partner (C.J. Wilson) knows Lee well enough to tread softly.
Manchester by the Sea is a gracefully coarse ode to lives knocked down and if not bouncing back at least not splatting at rock bottom. There are also glimmers of humor shining all the brighter because of the darkness they cut through. Lonergan writes characters too damaged for happy endings then offers them just enough goodness to keep going. That's life, and a terrific movie.
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