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Manchester by the Sea

Manchester by the Sea

Manchester by the Sea opened a couple weeks ago in a few theaters, hit some festivals, but is getting a wider opening this week. Starring Casey Affleck as Lee Chandler, Michelle Williams as Randi Chandler, Lucas Hedges as Patrick Chandler and Kyle Chandler as Joe Chandler, the film was directed and written by Kenneth Lonergan. The story of the production is tangled, involving several big changes. At some point Matt Damon was going to direct, John Krasinski was going to star, but due to other obligations, neither was available, so it ended up with Lonergan and Affleck in front. Manchester is currently rating extremely high, with 8.6 on IMDB, 97% on Rotten Tomatoes and 95 on Metascore, so, if you think itís good, you have plenty of company.

The first thing you need to know is that, Manchester is really a downer that is only partially relieved by moments of gallows humor. The main character, Lee, is a marginal character, living in one room in Boston, going maintenance work, cussing out his apartment building customers and just about anybody else who crosses his very short temper. Lee drinks a lot, is monosylllabic and moody, has history with hockey, bar fights and general dysfunction. He has family in Manchester, New Hampshire. They are also a somewhat dysfunctional group, working with fishing boats. Lee has a horrible tragedy in his past (a spoiler) that caused him to leave Manchester and take up his walking-wounded life. When his brother Joe dies of heart failure, Lee goes home to Manchester and discovers that Joe has appointed him as the guardian of his 16 year old son Patrick. The movie bounces back and forth in its time frames, with a lot of flashbacks to the period before Leeís tragedy, when things were better. When Lee finds out that he is Patrickís guardian, he resists that, temporarily moving to Manchester, into his brotherís house, trying to find an alternate guardian for Patrick. Patrick is a branch from the same family tree, playing hockey, juggling multiple girlfriends, being moody and wanting Lee to step up and take responsibility. They seem obligated to each other, but not by choice. Leeís ex-wife has a new life as does Joeís, and neither seem like a good match for the disposition of the rest of the Chandler family. Just how these characters move on, what happens to Patrick and whether they remain as walking wounded, is the rest of the story, that I wonít spoil.

As I said, the first thing to know is that Manchester is NOT a popcorn movie. Itís sad, difficult to watch and slow. It takes its good old time telling this story and doesnít let the audience off the hook for a moment. Much of the time, it feels like youíre watching a very personal story thatís none of your business. You want something to turn out right for these characters, something to drag them out of their small town, depressing malaise, but the outlook is not good. Thereís too much toxic history for sudden, sweet endings where everybody ends up happy. None of the characters seems up to the task of rescuing all of the others.

Acting in Manchester is excellent. Much of the movie is Lee, and Casey Affleck deserves the attention heís received for creating this character. Everybody else in the cast is similarly believable. Michelle Williams is excellent as Randi, as is Lucas Hedges as Patrick. In fact, everybody in the cast is excellent and completely believable. Itís definitely an actorís movie, a low budget drama and not a visual spectacle. Effects and action are near zero since the entire film is about plot and characters. It has a lot of dialog and personal tension. Itís set in several very old towns in coastal New England and has a lot of thick accents. The genealogy of the people involved in the movie (Affleck, Damon and a minor character who may be from the Wahlberg family) suggests that this film is something very personal, being part of the world where they grew up. Sometimes the fruit does not fall too far from the tree.

Direction, by Kenneth Lonergan (also the script writer) is excellent. The movie is slow, seems longer than its 2 hour and 15 minute run time, but it seems appropriate to the story and the characters, for whom life often is a labor. My only criticism (aside from the mood) is the obviously low budget movie music. It never seemed to be mirroring the plot and much of it was cloned from classical music pieces that have no relevance to the plot. I found it to be distracting. Itís not a movie to see if youíre in the mood to be entertained, but Iím guessing that it will be reckoned as one of the best films of 2016, a credit to the cast and crew.