Manchester By The Sea Review – Strong Performances Generate Oscar Buzz in This Tragic Drama

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Manchester by the Sea, from Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions, presents the heart-wrenching drama of one family and how they cope when their worlds collide, and fall apart, as the unimaginable strips them of everything.

Directed and written Kenneth Lonergan and produced by Matt Damon, Manchester by the Sea stars Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, Lucas Hedges, Gretchen Mol, C.J. Wilson with Matthew Broderick and Tate Donovan.

Manchester by the Sea opens in the height of Boston’s famous winters with piles of snow and ice as scene after scene shows the life of a maintenance worker for an apartment complex handling the mundane tasks associated with life in aging buildings.

An all-around handy man, Lee Chandler, played by Casey Affleck, handles the electrical, water leaks, and stopped up bathroom plumbing and with each household different dynamics come into play: he is simply the lowly janitor in one apartment and love interest in another.

A phone call brings the past colliding with his lonely present. In flashbacks we learn Lee’s brother Joe, played by Kyle Chandler, is diagnosed with degenerative heart condition, his wife, Elise, played by Gretchen Mol, an alcoholic is unable to handle the realities of the disease and she eventually leaves and the two divorce leaving Joe to raise their son.

On this day, Lee is heading to home to a place his past and the burdens of his own life are on every face, around every corner, in every memory. Before he makes it to the hospital, his brother dies and suddenly he is again in the adult role. His nephew, Patrick, played by Lucas Hedges, is now his main concern.

We also learn in flashbacks that Lee, at one time was happily married to Randi, played by Michelle Williams, with three babies. The five of them had a quaint life in Manchester-by-the-Sea with Lee working Joe’s boat bringing in the day’s catch and on longer trips money from the big hauls.

Their home, had the man cave, the house where everyone would gather, drinking, a little smoke, sometimes more, other times less with darts, pool, noise typical for the guys. Randi, with three sleeping babies was not having this every weekend.

Back to the tasks of today, Joe had to be buried only the harsh winters made the ground to frozen to dig and he had to be on ice until spring. Patrick had to be told and as much as he understood he had time to come to grips that his dad was dying.

With years to plan for his inevitable early death, Joe worked out the details bringing Lee back into the fold with new responsibility. Patrick, a typical teen tested every boundary with his Uncle and his grief as he invited his girlfriend to spend the night getting the okay with “my dad let me.”

Soon invoking the memory of his dead father was working on everyone including a second girl who was helping him with grief management therapy.

Manchester by the Sea is a poignant resonating film as Lee, who from his own tragedy became the walking dead, a manifestation of a person who walks through life unable to move past the deep tragedy that cost him what he believes was his fault and his only chance.

His dedication to the loves he lost is deeply resonating as he is reminded of the life when he sits alone. With Joe always trying even from the grave to pull him back into the land of the living, he makes him the executor of his estate and single caregiver, guardian of Patrick. He’s got no issues with it as he plans to move him to Boston, to leave the memories that like a plague rise in the eyes of everyone, friend and foe.

Patrick is also facing the past as his mom has emailed him and wants to see him. Now a born again Christian, she has married a nice Christian man, Jeffrey, played by Matthew Broderick who believes that reveling all your feelings are the way to a productive relationship especially to a 15-year-old just reconciling with his mom. The awkwardness of their first meeting drives her back to the bottle and him back to his dysfunctional but solid uncle.

Manchester by the Sea is an award vehicle. The sorrow that hangs in the air like the deep cold just reaches out from the screen and finds that place in the heart.

Casey Affleck is surprisingly good. His range and depth of emotion, his ability to portray the bottomless pit of sorrow, the kind that just won’t go away. It is an academy award performance.

I was genuinely moved by Michelle Williams. Her performance, until her apologetic monologue, is good, it shifts at that moment to award winning. I expect her to receive a nomination for her role also.

Gretchen Mol has been around for some time and is finally coming into her own. This role, as the alcoholic turned Christian mother abandoning her child is a pivotal turn for her. She nailed every emotion. She is very good and deserves the praise for it.  

The entire cast brings deep performances even as our Patrick, who knows how to manipulate the grief for his own gain. Lucas Hedges take the role and brings a teen, he was raised without a mom, not without love as he knows he was loved, to the screen. 

Manchester by the Sea is a film about life, the sudden turns, the ache, the unbelievable sorrow that seems to open too big arms, wrap itself around us and never let go and tries to bring you under.  It’s the kind you just can’t get beyond.

The performances are stunning, shocking and real. They capture the heartache of sudden tragedy, the kind that hurdles your emotions into a brick wall, of blinding pain, never ending. It stays in your soul.

Manchester by the Sea is playing in select cities. Check local listings. It will expand to theaters everywhere soon. See it. 

Images courtesy of Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions via IMDB and used with permission..

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