Here’s a good rule of thumb – if Kyle Chandler shows up in a movie, it’s probably good. I’m sure that there are exceptions to this, but in general it holds up. Chandler is rarely the star – he always has a small but significant part – yet he has demonstrated pretty good taste in choosing the movies in which he appears after his role as Coach Eric Taylor on Friday Night Lights. Carol, Zero Dark Thirty, The Wolf of Wall Street, and Argo all have two things in common – Kyle Chandler turns up and all of them received Oscar nominations. The Spectacular Now was an indie darling. His presence is often a pleasant surprise; rarely do I go into a movie expecting to see Chandler, but like the harbinger of good things, I am always relieved to see his face. If it’s good enough for Kyle Chandler, it’s probably good enough for me.
So I was delighted when I discovered that Chandler has a role in Manchester By The Sea. I had gone into the movie knowing very little about the plot and while the film had a lot of positive buzz around it, I wasn’t fully sure what to expect. Enter Kyle Chandler stage right and I knew everything was going to be fine. Manchester By The Sea is a drama that is sad and tragic, but also occasionally has moments of humor and lightness. The story is simple, but the characters are incredibly complex; the actors that inhabit them give beautifully nuanced performances that leave an impression. At times, Manchester By The Sea can be unbearably sad. I cried many times while watching it in the theater and I really hate doing that. But there is beauty in that sadness, a compelling story about loss, grief, and family.
Casey Affleck stars as Lee Chandler, a janitor for an apartment complex in Quincy, Massachusetts. Lee is a loner and seems ready to lash out at the world, especially after he has been drinking. When his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) dies, Lee is surprised to discover that he has been named the guardian of his teenaged nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Taking care of Patrick requires Lee to move back to Manchester-by-the-Sea, where he is forced to face his own tragic history, personified by his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams). Lee tries to help Patrick through his own grief while battling his own demons.
There is no doubt that Manchester By The Sea is a sad movie, but it also finds the humor in grief. There are a lot of humorous exchanges between Lee and Patrick as they explore the unchartered waters of their new reality. Patrick is a good kid, but he’s also a bit of a wiseass and both he and Lee are undoubtedly using comedy to help them deal with the death of Joe. This humor helps balance Manchester By The Sea out; the film can delve into some very dark territory but the viewer never feels like they are completely drowning in sadness because there is inevitable some laughs around the corner. They cut the tension and make Manchester a better movie.
Casey Affleck really delivers a powerhouse performance; as more facets are revealed of Lee’s past, Affleck plays the many different notes of his personality in a natural and understated way. There’s a lot going on with Lee and the film is not afraid to make him completely unlikable one minute and deeply sympathetic the next. Affleck really disappears into the role, inhabiting all the complex and conflicting attributes. Lee really is trying to be there for his nephew in this time of sorrow, but Lee also cannot outrun the past that he is forced to reckon with. There’s a lot going on in this role, but it always feels real and Affleck’s performance is lived in and natural. Casey often toils in the shadow of his more famous older brother, but Manchester is a tour de force performance that solidifies that the talent in the Affleck family runs pretty deep.
Newcomer Lucas Hedges holds his own in the film as well and deserves the critical recognition that he’s received. Hedges and Affleck have excellent on-screen rapport and Hedges feels like a real teenager – overwhelmed by grief, but also a little selfish and self-centered, focused on what everything means to him rather than anyone else. Michelle Williams, who is one of my personal favorites, doesn’t have a ton of screen time but makes the most of what limited time she has with a heartbreaking and devastating performance. There is a scene between her and Affleck toward the end of the movie that just destroyed me and made you feel the pain of both of these characters. They have dealt with their past in very different ways and though they share a history, they cannot seem to figure out a way to help each other without causing more heartache. If Viola Davis wasn’t submitting herself in the supporting actress category this year, I think Williams would have been the frontrunner to win. It’s been nearly a month since I’ve seen this movie, but her scene with Affleck is still the first thing I think about when I hear a reference to this movie. That’s how powerful it was.
I really enjoyed Manchester By The Sea, at least as much as you can enjoy a film with this subject matter. The acting is strong across the board and while the story is emotionally challenging, it is told in a beautiful and artistic way. Casey Affleck is currently the frontrunner for Best Actor at the Oscars and while his personal history may (rightly) jeopardize that, on a purely artistic level this is perhaps the best performance of his career. Manchester By The Sea is chock full of realistic depictions of grief and what happens when running away from your demons is no longer an option. The characters feel real and their journeys are authentic; while they are all impacted by their ordeal, they are not completely transformed. This is a heavy movie that is tempered by its interludes of lightness. It’s a film that has stuck with me, which is one reason that it took me so long to review as I struggled to articulate why it was so captivating. And, for the record, in his limited screen time, Kyle Chandler is, as always, aces.
Manchester By The Sea is currently in theaters.