Manchester by the Sea screened Saturday and Sunday, and screens again October 11, as part of the main slate of the 54th New York Film Festival. Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions will release the film theatrically beginning November 18. Follow our coverage of NYFF 2016 here.
I’m not aware of any formal census having been taken, but I feel safe concluding from my own observations that there was not a dry eye to be found in the Walter Reade Friday afternoon as the house lights came up on director Ken Lonergan’s latest, Manchester by the Sea. More to the point, I don’t much care to dwell on the possibility that anyone could remain unmoved by this expansive, indelible portrait of family, heartache, grief, and loss.
The core of the movie is the relationship between handyman Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) and his teenage nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) as they cope with a death—that of Joe (Kyle Chandler), Patrick’s father and Lee’s older brother, felled by heart disease—that means the only family either one has left is each other. As they struggle with the adjustment, flashbacks gradually reveal the even deeper wounds which have sent Lee into anguished retreat from life itself, creeping up on a truth that’s ever-present but too painful to be named out loud.
As Lonergan deftly maps a web of family bonds present and past, he demonstrates his customary ear for speech and (just as important) his eye for place. What sets him apart as a filmmaker is his gift for drama without contrivance, an understated and observational style that lets meaning emerge unbidden from the daily churn of lived experience. The modesty of his approach, his scrupulous fidelity to the rhythms of day-to-day life, allow him to sneak up on big game unawares, to confront overwhelming emotions without grandiosity or hysteria. The film’s toughest moments are gut-wrenching, but still suffused by warmth and compassion; Lonergan never gawks at tragedy or falls into punitive miserablism.
Arguably the most underappreciated director working in America today, Lonergan occupies a lonely perch in the industry landscape: accessible enough to be Oscar-nominated for the first film he directed, yet so allergic to compromise that he entered into litigation with his studio over the editing of the second. It’s inevitable—if it hasn’t happened already—that some sanctimonious gatekeeper will use Manchester by the Sea as a weapon of nostalgia, lambasting more frivolous entertainments for failing to meet the standards of some hazy, sainted past. But that line of attack obscures the more salient fact that work this intimate, forceful, and lucid has always been a precious rarity. Shattering and luminous, destined to be treasured for generations, this film is, above all, a gift.