Why do you we enjoy going to the movies? Why do you we even like entertaining ourselves in the first place? Well, that’s because real life, for the most part, is boring. Sure, there are moments of excitement, but those times in between usually end up being tedious and dull. We’re always waiting for the next exciting thing to happen. Making films that try to emulate “real life” come with these exact challenges. You want to tell an honest human story that people can really relate to, but unlike life, stories usually need some sort of narrative thrust to keep the events moving. Without that, it can end up becoming like that mundane reality we’re trying to escape.

In Manchester by the Sea, Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is a quiet maintenance man who just likes to get his job done and keep to himself. After receiving news that his brother has passed away, he heads up to his old town of Manchester-by-the-sea, Massachusetts to settle his affairs. Upon arriving and receiving his brother’s will, he learns he has been named as his nephew Patrick’s (Lucas Hedges) legal guardian, much to his surprise. While Lee tries to support his erratic nephew during these dark times, he must also cope with the demons that he left behind in the town many years before.

This film mirrors real life in all of the correct ways. There’s so much honesty and authenticity to the writing and direction, where you’re feeling exactly what the characters are feeling at every moment. Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan is a master of bringing true human emotion and character on film. Since some of the film’s themes hit very close to home for me, I may have had an easier time than most relating with the characters and their dilemmas. However, the rawness that’s captured throughout is undeniable. Everything feels so real. The gloomy, yet beautiful, Massachusetts locales our characters inhabit really bring the film to life. What took me by surprise was the terrific sound mixing, with little background conversations being captured while our leads our conversing, or footsteps, keys jingling, or a car starting way off in the distance. Everything just feels so rich and lived in. You’re completely immersed, actually feeling like you’re right there with the characters.

Coming from a playwright background, Lonergan certainly doesn’t stray too far from there in terms of structure. He does try to use the filmmaking medium to his advantage and keep things visually interesting, though. This is a very dialogue heavy film, with scene after scene with characters talking to each other, but it’s not endless close-up after close-up of characters sniffling. The tone is perfectly handled, and while I hate using the term a “rollercoaster of emotions”, it’s the perfect way to put it. This is a very heavy film, especially for ones who can fully relate to the grief, despair, guilt, and confusion these characters are experiencing. For how heavy it is, though, Lonergan constantly contrasts the intense drama with uproarious humor. When I was fighting back tears one moment, I was in hysterics the next. The film never lets up on this changing tone, just like reality.

Also like real life, there’s no real narrative thrust, or general plot to our lives. Sure, we all have our goals and aspirations, but we have to take life as it goes along. While there’s not really a dramatic through line here, that’s perfectly okay. The characters are all so fully realized and the dialogue is so real, that you can’t help but be gripped by every scene. Casey Affleck is outstanding. His performance that captures the portrait of a man tortured by his choices and regrets instantly draws you in by the sheer realism. There’s so much sorrow in his expressions and the way he carries himself, but his perfectly delivered dry wit gives his character some levity, and extra depth. He’ll go down as one of the greatest actors of his generation. Lucas Hedges holds his own against Affleck, especially in the heightened emotional scenes between the two. He handles both comedy and drama well, and I can see a bright career ahead of him. Michelle Williams probably leaves the biggest impact, though. With only 12 minutes of screen time, she drops an atom bomb in each scene, to where her impact is felt throughout the film.

There is just so much humanity to be found in Manchester by the Sea. Where films like Boyhood, This is 40, and other slice of life films fail, this succeeds in nearly every single respect. While there’s not much of a plot, it never feels boring, or meandering. It authentically represents all of the facets of life, without sacrificing any filmmaking, or storytelling technique. An absolutely gorgeous film overflowing with nothing more than raw and honest human emotion.


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