It’s hard enough to get an audience to laugh or cry; eliciting both, in the same sequence, even in the same moment, is akin to sorcery. Yet in Manchester by the Sea, the latest from writer-director Kenneth Lonergan, numerous scenes pack a one-two punch that’ll start with tears, glide into an authentic laugh or three, then settle into a comfortable space between the two. I can’t think of a more impressive cinematic feat, nor another film in 2016 that achieves it with such skill and ease.
Casey Affleck stars as Lee Chandler, a drunken, unhappy janitor in Boston who is summoned back to the titular town after his brother (Kyle Chandler) unexpectedly passes away. From there, via seamless flashbacks and painstaking conversations, we find out how Lee ended up such a mess and watch in detailed delight—and occasional disgust—as he struggles to embrace his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) and the idea that he might need to settle here once again.
If that plot sounds like something you’ve seen before, you're right. Lonergan isn’t looking to break new storytelling ground. What he does understand, however, is the value of the journey. He provides just enough slivers of a larger backstory, piquing interest and creaking open doors a tad until the pieces click and you’re awash in emotion. This might also seem like Filmmaking 101, yet I can’t help but wonder why so few others have made it work this well.
Tossed into the mix is Lee’s ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams), though our first glimpses of their past relationship is quirkily loving. What drove them apart? How did it rock Lee so thoroughly that he can barely handle crossing the city limits? And, as we dive deeper, what will it be like when the two come face-to-face, one on one, once again?
Unlike similar dramas, Lonergan doesn’t milk these angles for all they’re worth. He lets the death of a beloved brother serve as the emotional catalyst it should be, then dangles the occasional thread and gives it a tug when necessary. Before long, you’re being pulled down a rabbit hole of grief and shame that you barely knew existed. Sadnesses compound and the hurt, rather than trickling from a near-closed faucet, pours out in waves.
But it’s not all about suffering. What Lee and the Chandler family have been through is daunting and potentially soul-crushing, but Manchester by the Sea is far from bleak. Lee’s reticence to engage with people—despite Lonergan throwing a bevy of attractive women at his character at all times—is mostly there to provoke laughter at how unabashedly blunt he is. It’s only when Lee goes job hunting in Manchester and starts getting turned down by residents fearful of his past that we realize why he’s this far removed, and what it must mean to disengage so completely.
For a film that jumps from present to past and back again, Manchester by the Sea never leans on that crutch so much as embraces its potential. Lonergan and editor Jennifer Lame slip in flashbacks so abruptly that it always takes a moment to realize you’ve bounced around in time. In doing so, they make these remembrances feel like genuine summonings from the depths of the characters’ minds. It’s a rarity to see a plot contrivance fit so perfectly into a film’s natural flow, not to mention serve as its most skillful artistic flourish.
Again, the build is what makes Manchester so special. Lonergan gives us time with Lee and Patrick and even Randi, moments meaningful and mundane that culminate in an explosion of feelings and an outpouring of sincerity. And having three leads of such skill—Williams has been brilliant since 2003, Affleck nails his big break, and Hedges’ emergence gives the film new life—means every climax is real and earned.
While Williams adds another notch to her “best young actress in the world” belt, this is nothing without Affleck and Hedges. Patrick is the prototypical high-school kid who thinks the Earth turns on his ups and downs; meanwhile, Lee can barely function as a human being, let alone as a father figure who is needed for the first time in years. Yet we can sense from second one that Patrick is a good kid, and that Lee has the potential for redemption. That all stems from what Affleck and Hedges bring to the table.
And when we reach the conclusion, the 130 minutes that preceded aren’t tossed aside or wrapped up in a neat package. For Lee, when you go through hell, there’s no fully coming back. And for Patrick and Randi, their lives will go on, always affected by Lee and what they’ve been through but on their own path. It’s awkward to call it “natural” because this is a fictional story with all the necessary manipulations; maybe it’s just that the strings are pulled lighter here, an acknowledgment that life and drama may be separate but honest motivations ring true, no matter how they’re presented.
Regardless, the promise that Lonergan was regaled for with You Can Count On Me and Margaret has been lived up to and then some. Long live the sorcerer.