There's something to the barren cold and whistling winds of Manchester by the Sea. They represent, no doubt intentionally, the bitterly harsh reality endured by the film's main character, Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), whose life is inundated with death and despair. Like the cold, Lee's emotional pain is something he must persevere through until the eventual spring, when conditions are restored to a more moderate state.
It wasn't always bad for Lee. We learn he had a loving wife (Michelle Williams) and three kids. Things were good, then tragedy struck and Lee had to move away from his hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts, to Boston, about an hour away. He now works miserably as a handyman and dwells on the past because he doesn't know how to move on. Then a phone call: His brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has died, and he must move back to care for his 16-year-old nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges).
The majority of writer-director Kenneth Lonergan's (You Can Count On Me) story follows Lee as he returns to Manchester, deals with funeral arrangements, comes to terms with Patrick and re-encounters his ex. None of it is necessarily pleasant to watch, but all of it feels essential, and it's in this immediacy that our rapt attention is hooked: We can't look away, and we don't want to. Lonergan's direction is steady but not showy, and relies on the drama and performances to carry the load.
And boy, do they. The ensemble is terrific, especially Affleck, who is worthy of a best actor Oscar nomination. Lee is a man who is detached from the world and all who are in it; he doesn't want to connect with others in any kind of meaningful way, and you understand why. You also see his flaws and root for him, because he seems to be a good soul who's experienced unthinkably terrible events. Affleck's approach is to not over-emote, and it's the right one. This is not a time for histrionics. Lee's restraint in dealing with anything is born out of fear of yet another failure, and Affleck's ability to convey that resistance (and seeming indifference) makes this a performance that's easy to underappreciate. Don't. It deserves all the attention it can get.
Williams is also great as usual, especially in a big emotional scene, and Chandler makes his presence felt in limited screen time as Lee's big brother. The real breakout here, though, is Hedges, a relative unknown (and the son of Dan in Real Life writer-director Peter Hedges) who's about to receive plenty of critical acclaim, and possibly even a supporting actor Oscar nomination. Patrick is an afflicted youth to whom life hasn't been fair, but he doesn't play the pity or sympathy card. Instead he acts out in other ways, such as having two girlfriends, playing in a band and taking hockey more seriously than school. Hedges allows us to understand the numbness that Patrick feels, and because of this facade, when he does get emotional it has a tremendous impact.
Very simply, Manchester by the Sea is one of the best films of 2016. Multiple Oscar nominations are in its future. Brace yourself and don't miss it.
5 out of 5 stars