The Sterling Standard in Movie Reviews 

Follow Us On:



The Far from Beautiful Sea

Casey Affleck
Casey Affleck
Roadside Attractions
 137 Minutes
Rated: R
Directed by:  Kenneth Lonergan
Starring: Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams
Manchester by the Sea

For the second time in less than two weeks, a motion picture tries to take a closer look at the process of grief. There are some surface similarities between last week’s Collateral Beauty and the far-more-powerful Manchester by the Sea. Both have a leading man who is struggling to cope with a devastating personal loss, one that has nearly destroyed his career and his personal life. And both leading me have someone close to them who meddles in their lives in somewhat bizarre fashion in an effort to get the mourners to move on with their lives. But while Collateral Beauty is full of artifice and gimmick, the emotions in Manchester by the Sea are all too real.


Unlike the main character in Collateral Beauty, Lee Chandler’s (Casey Affleck) loss isn’t evident at first. He is clearly hurt, however, living in a single room in the basement of the Boston apartment complex where he works as a janitor/handyman, and spending his days listening to tenant complaints with profound disinterest, while doing the absolute minimum necessary to survive. But his life changes one day when he receives an urgent phone call from the hospital in the coastal town of Manchester-by-the-Sea that his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) is in critical condition. By the time Lee can make the long drive to the hospital, Joe has died, and Lee has to break the news to Joe’s 16-year-old son Patrick (Lucas Hedges).


The ground outside is frozen for the winter, so Joe can’t be buried for months. Before Lee can make up his mind what to do going forward (he’s more than an hour’s drive away from his former residence), he and Patrick learn about Joe’s will. Joe’s alcoholic wife Elise (Gretchen Mol) had abandoned him a few years earlier, so Patrick has no one to take legal custody of him. However, in the will, Joe asks Lee to act as Patrick’s guardian and provides enough money for Lee to make a new start.


At first, Patrick is amenable to the idea of Lee as a guardian, as he senses that his uncle won’t be too strict, as evidenced by Lee’s allowing Patrick’s girlfriend to spend the evening. But, Patrick soon has second thoughts, largely due to Lee’s moodiness and occasional temper tantrums and because he senses that Joe wants to uproot him from his friends and move back to Boston. Complicating matters is the fact that Elise wants to get back into her son’s life, and Joe isn’t sure about how stable she is.


For much of the two-hour-plus running time of Manchester, viewers have an idea of the direction in which the movie is headed. The adult manchild who grudgingly begins to grow up only when the care of a child is abruptly thrust upon him has been filmed a number of time, with the prototypical version probably being Hugh Grant in About a Boy. Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan is certainly aware of the meme—he went out of his way to set it up. But he defies audience expectations and makes a film that is far more realistic and far more effective as a result.


Manchester by the Sea forces its characters and, by extension, the audience to acknowledge the painful fact that some wounds simply can’t be healed. Just as some people are physically injured beyond the body’s healing capabilities, they can also suffer emotional trauma that’s simply too severe to overcome. Lonergan hints at this over and over, although he keeps his trump card well hidden. It’s not until late in the movie that he reveals just what happened to Lee to affect him so severely and to cause the townspeople to turn on him. And, while I’m not going to reveal what happened, it completely explains Lee’s current emotional state.


A movie like Manchester needs a solid lead performance to work, and Casey Affleck is brilliant here. Usually, Oscar-nominated performances are showy, larger-than-life, but Affleck does just the opposite in his portrayal of Lee. True, he has a couple of violent outbursts that catch the audience by surprise because they are so unexpected. Bur, for the most part, he reacts, taking whatever is dished out to him with only the subtlest of reactions to show just how much he is affected. His performance is contrasted to a certain extent by that of Hedges, a young actor who is far more demonstrative in dealing with his own sense of loss.


In fact, Manchester is one of those movies in which nearly every character has a heavy cross to bear, and few of them do so effectively. But, despite all that, the movie isn’t the overwhelmingly sad tearjerker it might have been. Instead, there’s a lot of humor in the film, and much of it isn’t black humor. Instead, Lonergan looks for the offbeat and oddball in the various scenes and plays them up. An example is an evening Lee spends with Jill (Beth Grant), the mother of the girl Patrick is seeing. Patrick set up the get-together, realizing that Jill was interested in Lee, in the hopes that Lee would distract Jill so that Patrick could get into bed with his girlfriend. It’s typical sitcom fare, but it’s so seemingly out of place here (and Lee’s clumsiness and shyness are so evident) that the scene plays out far funnier than it would have been in another movie.


Kenneth Lonergan resists the temptation in current movies of the pat “feel good” ending, in which every character’s problems magically resolve themselves by the final credits. Here, each major character is flawed and hurting throughout the movie, and progress for some only comes in bits and pieces. But it’s not a “feel bad” movie either. Just as in real life, the movie’s ending is a case of “two steps forward, one step back” (in this case, a giant step for many). Lonergan isn’t a prolific director; this is only his third film. But they all deal with people’s reactions to loss and the grieving process, and Manchester by the Sea is his most mature and assured film yet. Expect this to be a major contender at this year’s Oscars, with Casey Affleck a favorite to take home the trophy. This film is definitely worthy of the attention it’s receiving.

In this scene, Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges argue about selling the family fishing boat.

Read other reviews of Manchester by the Sea:


Manchester by the Sea (2016) on IMDb