Films that are driven solely by their characters always gamble when it comes to casting. It’s not enough to find good actors to fill the roles; they have to be right for the part as well. They can be great actors but if they somehow don’t fit the role, then the film won’t work as well as it should, regardless of how well-written or how well-directed it might be.
Manchester by the Sea is primarily carried by Casey Affleck, but the film doesn’t rely on just him. Although he is undoubtedly the lead, the supporting actors play just as vital a role in making the film work, which is why it’s so impressive that there is not a single weak spot in the entire film. Manchester by the Sea is such a tremendous accomplishment in that everything seemed to fit in the right place when it was being made. The cast is not only excellent, but they inhabit their respective characters so completely, making them feel alive and relatable in spite of the horrible tragedies they’ve experienced that most people can’t fathom going through.
Nothing about Manchester by the Sea feels artificial. From the dialogue to the performances, and even in the way it’s shot and edited, everything works in complete harmony to deliver the full range of emotions and realism that the story requires. There is so much authenticity in the film that it never needs to resort to melodrama or cheap theatrics to make its point. It’s a very human film that is dedicated in showing the truth of the situation in every scene. There is not one moment in the entire film where you feel like you’re being emotionally manipulated or even that you’re watching a drama movie. Writer and director Kenneth Lonergan manages to accomplish what few filmmakers do: completely immerse the audience in such a way that we forget that we’re watching actors play pretend onscreen.
When we are first properly introduced to Lee, we find a man living a lonely life working as a handyman for numerous tenants. He’s quiet, reserved, and aloof, snapping at customers and starting fights at bars before going home to his studio apartment. As told through the use of flashbacks, we find out that Lee once had a family of his own. Three kids, a wife, and a large group of friends. We start making guesses as to what could’ve happened between then and now, and as the film progresses we slowly dread finding out the exact events that lead to Lee in his present circumstances.
It’s a stunningly tragic past that manages to bring clarity to what should’ve been obvious from the start. Lee isn’t just some lonely man who lost his family through a messy divorce. He is a broken man who’s going through the motions of his life, watching it pass by him and not really caring. That is, until he gets a call that forces him to go back to his hometown to take care of his orphaned teenage nephew. The same hometown where he lost his once beautiful life.
It all sounds very depressing, and the film is appropriately low-key in terms of tone and atmosphere, but the film doesn’t suffocate you with all the doom and gloom of grief and tragedy. There’s also a surprisingly charming and witty aspect to the film, which is the relationship between Lee and his nephew Patrick. This is what lies in the heart and soul of the entire film as we watch two people who are unequipped with dealing with loss try to support one another as best as they can. Watching their attempts at building a relationship because they have no choice in the matter is both delightful and moving. Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges have such a lively chemistry that brings authenticity and levity to the film that you can’t help but get committed as to what they’ll choose to do next.
But as the film reaches its end after a breathtakingly powerful scene between Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams, Lee admits to being incapable of taking care of Patrick regardless of how much he wants to. Watching Lee find a bittersweet compromise in their situation is so utterly heartrending because we’ve come to understand him so deeply. Most important of all, we also understand that he’s done the best he can in the situation, and that admitting his shortcomings, no matter how difficult, is ultimately a triumph for both Lee and Patrick. The film ends on such a pitch perfect note, choosing to focus on neither the somber aspect of the situation nor the hopeful promise of the characters’ uncertain futures.
In many ways films are like an orchestra, and director Kenneth Lonergan has conducted his musical piece with such a refined confidence. Manchester by the Sea is, without a doubt, a masterful piece of filmmaking wherein every element works together to express the truth in such an eloquent and poignant way.