The annual award-movie avalanche is upon us, a bombardment of advertising, screeners and emails–but at this juncture, Manchester by the Sea is the best film I’ve seen all year. When my wife and I viewed it at the Telluride Film Festival we had to stay in our seats for several minutes afterwards to take it all in. It’s a highly emotional story that builds slowly and deliberately, disarming us by telling its story out of chronological order. Ultimately, it offers a catharsis that makes the often wrenching drama worthwhile.
Casey Affleck is receiving well-deserved recognition for his performance in the leading role, but he is also perfectly cast. The protagonist of this New England tale is a quiet, unassuming man who has been through a terrible experience that affects his every waking moment. Because he isn’t a highly verbal character he has to express his discomfort and distress through silence, stillness, and awkward body language. That’s no small achievement, and Affleck does all of this to perfection.
Kyle Chandler plays his older brother, a lifelong fisherman who hasn’t long to live and chooses Affleck to become the guardian of his adolescent son. Affleck loves his nephew and has a deep sense of duty and responsibility, but this is a role he doesn’t want. When it is foisted upon him, he and the boy (a remarkable Lucas Hedges) make an uneasy pair, the grown man haunted by his memories, the youngster with his whole life ahead of him.
This is only the third film written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, following You Can Count On Me and Margaret. He is better known as a playwright, but the attention to detail—from the authenticity of the small-town setting to the nuances of the characters, both major and minor—earn him the right to be called a great filmmaker.
He clearly loves actors, and the movie has no weak links in its talented cast, headed by Affleck and Hedges, who work hand-in-glove with Chandler, Michelle Williams, Gretchen Mol, and Matthew Broderick. There is a heartbreaking scene near the end, which I dare not describe or give away, that I daresay I will never forget.
Manchester by the Sea offers a unique moviegoing experience. It deserves every award that is coming its way.