We think of the movies as a medium of action and image. So it's kind of audacious that most of the drama is internal in Manchester by the Sea. Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan brings his playwright's instincts to this intimate story of love, loss, and family in a close-knit fishing community on the Massachusetts coast.
These rugged folks don't articulate their feelings, but those feelings run deep, and Lonergan finds continually inventive ways to express them in this quietly moving film.
Lonergan is best known for You Can Count On Me, another look at uneasy, but fierce family dynamics. Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), the taciturn protagonist in Manchester by the Sea has no means of expressing his inner demons, not even to himself.
But Lonergan tells his story through judicious use of flashbacks, and in the ways he interacts with people around him, whether fighting, swearing, or joking around. (Indeed, for a movie whose plot turns on so many tragic elements, the dialogue can be surprisingly funny.)
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But when his older brother, Joe, dies suddenly, Lee has to return to his home town of Manchester by the Sea, on Cape Ann. Joe (Kyle Chandler, in flashbacks) was a divorced commercial fisherman raising a son, Patrick, on his own.
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As Lee and Patrick cope, Lee's memories play an ever more crucial role in the storytelling. The story of how Lee got stuck in his own haunted purgatory is revealed in small, heartbreaking increments, in counterpoint to the larger story of Lee and Patrick learning to navigate their strange new reality.
Affleck offers up shading in the smallest of gestures. His scenes with Hedges give the film its backbone. Michelle Williams provides fire and grace in her few scenes.
This is a life-sized story about recognizably human characters whose dilemmas stay with us.