When the emotional climax of Manchester By The Sea hits, it’s all the more powerful for being so prosaic. A man sits across the table from his teenage nephew and repeats a hard truth both he and the audience have been working towards. Though it’s not so short that blinking will mean you miss it, it’s close. We've taken a while to get here, and the brevity of the uncle’s statement lands with a weight long waiting to drop.
But the surprising, truly brilliant thing about Manchester By The Sea is that this build-up never once feels like a dirge – however apt that term is to the film’s subject. Director Kenneth Lonergan patiently understates events in ways that, counterintuitively, allows their dramatic texture to form into kind of a silent surround sound. Only after coming away do you realise how much this film has done with relatively so little.
We’re in Boston, following janitor and all round handyman Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) as he deals with obnoxious tenants and drinks himself into bar fights. From his near comatose state, we can tell something has broken him. We don’t begin to find out what until a phone call brings him news that his brother has died, drawing Lee back to his hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea, and whatever demons he’s run from.
There he finds realities he can’t block out. Unbeknownst to Lee, his brother has made him legal guardian of his son Patrick (Lucas Hedges). The bond between the two changes from tolerance to tenderness and back again, their inevitable conflicts leavened with a wonderfully deadpan humour. Hedges is especially refreshing as your typical adolescent, unsentimental to experiences that American films far too often mythologise.
Yet if Oscar buzz alone is anything to go by, it’s Affleck’s performance that carries Manchester BY The Sea. As the devastating event that forced Lee into exile becomes clear, and in turn explains the stolid exterior that he’s formed since, Affleck’s skill in conveying such blinding trauma so subtly becomes impossible to ignore.
A stunning final act re-appearance of Michele Williams as Lee’s ex-wife rounds out the considerable talent on display, Lonergan proving that even the most intense of character studies are only as good as their ensembles. Fittingly for a director who started out writing for the stage, Manchester By The Sea smacks of the well-wrought play, to the extent that even its smallest characters feel intimately realised.
Fans of Lonergan’s previous tales of big moments in small lives will lap-up this latest effort. Manchester By The Sea confirms his unmatched gift for capturing the quiet epics of everyday American pathos – an eye for the prosaic that resounds.