Manchester by the Sea is a nearly flawless film. It's very sad, beautifully acted, deals with grief in an unusually honest way, and has a very specific and fully realized sense of place.
A brief geography lesson: this is not about Manchester, New Hampshire. That town is some 38 miles from the sea so it doesn't qualify. Manchester Massachusetts actually is by the sea -- about 30 miles northeast of Boston -- and was settled as such in 1645. Then, 344 years later in 1989, the town was granted approval via petition to the State Legislature to change the name officially to Manchester-by-the-Sea, in order to differentiate itself from Manchester, NH. According to the town's official website, it's what it had been commonly referred to as for decades anyway.
This stuff is never mentioned in the film; it's not relevant to the characters in the story or anything happening to them. Filmgoers in the northeast might have some understanding of the history, but it's a slightly helpful clarification for audiences in the rest of the country who might go in thinking all these people are in New Hampshire.
And this is very much a seaside town. The family at the center of the story owns a boat, which they often take out fishing. In just a few flashback scenes, we see the central character, Lee (Casey Affleck, fantastic) out on the water with his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) and Joe's young son Patrick (Ben O'Brien, in the flashbacks). This shows some family history, and a past filled with Lee bonding with his nephew.
One thing about Manchester by the Sea really bugs me, though, a storytelling convention I find fruitlessly frustrating. I won't spoil what it is here, but present-day Lee is a shell of a man because something terrible happened to him. Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan drags out the processing of telling us what happens to him, even though not just his family, but the entire town knows what it was. What is the point of this, really? I guess he would have to resort to exposition in order to reveal it earlier, and we all know it's better to show than to tell -- but we could have been shown earlier too. Maybe not too early, I suppose. Admittedly it's a delicate decision. In any event, once the reveal happens, Lee's tragedy is so objectively horrifying it creeps close to being over the top.
But everything about it informs the current tragedy at hand, which is the death of Joe, and Joe having willed Lee as the guardian of now-16-year-old Patrick (Lucas Hedges) without Lee's knowledge or consent. It of course also informs why Lee is now divorced from his ex-wife (Michelle Williams). It only partly informs the oddly deadpan way Lee asks "Is he dead?" when we first see him arrive at the hospital upon learning his brother is there. Well, Joe has a rare heart condition that has had him in the hospital many times. Clearly Lee has had to ask the question many times. And now the answer is yes.
And now he has to contend with what to do with Patrick, who has many friends and an active social and academic life in the town, forcing Lee to contend with spending time in the town that is the location of the worst thing ever to happen to him. If the phrase "it's complicated" ever appropriately applied to a set of family relationships, it does here. Joe, for his part, has long been estranged from his alcoholic wife (Gretchen Mol), but Patrick gets in touch with her. In a brief scene in which Patrick goes to her house for lunch, Matthew Broderick shows up in a cameo as her new husband. Nothing against Matthew Broderick per se, but he feels slightly miscast here. Instead of thinking about this super-religious guy Elise is now married to, you just spend your time thinking Hey, that's Matthew Broderick! (Also, when the hell did Matthew Broderick get so old?)
But these are very minor quibbles, hardly putting a dent into the fact that Manchester by the Sea is easily one of the best films of the year. In spite of the many ways the family gets torn apart -- alcoholism, random tragedy -- these people deeply and believably care about each other. That's what makes dealing with the grief harder for them, in a way.
It should thus go without saying that if you're even moderately prone to crying at sad movies, you'll want to take some tissues to this one. I stupidly didn't even have any napkins with me so I had tears streaming all the way down my neck. I wasn't sobbing, mind you -- so don't get me wrong; this is not a relentlessly gut wrenching story. Part of the greatness in its honest look at grief is its steady sprinkling of humor. Even the most tragic of circumstances has people leaning toward levity; such is the case with most of our real-world lives. This movie is dealing with raw emotion rather than histrionics, and that covers a wide range.
All of the actors are at the top of their game here, even Lucas Hedges as teen Patrick. Arguably especially Hedges, with his singular understanding of the way teenagers think and behave. He keeps hooking up with a girlfriend in an attempt to get laid, and even these scenes have an unusual levity to them -- too many movies treat teen sex like something momentous. Here it shows them acting like teenagers even in a sexual context: bickering and sneers moving to giggling in the same breath.
I don't know anyone like any of these people, and yet they all feel very real, fully realized, in a real-world setting that conveys a genuine cultural mindset and attitude. Clearly Massachusetts Bay and Puget Sound are culturally very different regions. But it's always good to get a clearly authentic look into other lives.