Combustible Celluloid
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With: Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, Lucas Hedges, C.J. Wilson, Heather Burns, Tate Donovan, Josh Hamilton, Anna Baryshnikov, Matthew Broderick, Gretchen Mol, Kara Hayward
Written by: Kenneth Lonergan
Directed by: Kenneth Lonergan
MPAA Rating: R for language throughout and some sexual content
Running Time: 137
Date: 11/23/2016

Manchester by the Sea (2016)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Silent Chill

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count on Me, Margaret) isn't a particularly visual film director, but he is a hell of a good writer, and capable of making his pictures move through pure emotion, not only love and hate and anger, but also less tangible things like regret and uncertainty. His Manchester by the Sea, helped along by a wintry New England backdrop, invites us into a powerful, rounded, and fully-realized story of several lives affected by a death.

Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is a Boston handyman, good at his job but unable to suffer fools; he has an uncontrollable temper. His brother (Kyle Chandler) is undoubtedly more successful, living north in the title town of Manchester; he has a boat and a loving son, and he seems very responsible. In a flashback, the brothers are out for a fishing trip with the young boy. The "fun" uncle asks the boy which brother he'd rather have raise him, take care of him, in a fictional disaster, and the boy doesn't even have to think before choosing his father. But now that father is dead, and Lee comes to Manchester to start taking care of things.

Lee's nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) is now a teen, with his own ideas about life, and Lee is shocked that he has been named legal guardian of the boy. Patrick has an estranged mother (Gretchen Mol), and in one scene he tries to reconnect with her; they meet for an awkward lunch with her with her creepily religious second husband (Matthew Broderick), and he realizes that this is no place for him. Lee and Patrick spend a great deal of time driving around; it's cold (in one scene they can't remember where they parked and are chilled to the bone before they find it) and funeral arrangements must be made. It turns out the ground is too hard, too frozen, to bury anything. The body must be kept in a freezer until spring, an idea that Patrick finds unacceptable.

There's also the problem of what to do with the boat, an expensive prospect, as well as the ultimate question of whether Lee is actually going to become Patrick's guardian, and where will they live? Will Lee uproot Patrick's life — he's in a band, plays hockey, and has two girlfriends — to go back to his beloved big city, or will Lee move to this small town, where a past tragedy haunts him? In one powerful scene, Lee runs into his ex-wife (Michelle Williams); she seems to be able to forgive him more easily than he can forgive himself, and he rebuffs her attempts at a truce.

Manchester by the Sea has the richness of a novel and at least two fantastically deep characters. Lee has retreated into a stony, impenetrable version of a human being, and Patrick hasn't yet developed the emotional resources to deal with his father's passing; the night of the funeral, he asks Lee to order pizza and invites some friends over. And though Lucas Hedges is actually a teenager, he gives a remarkably mature performance. As for Affleck, he has one previous Oscar nomination — for the little-seen masterpiece The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) — but this could be the breakthrough that transforms him from reliable character actor to acclaimed star.

It's not perfect. The movie relies on flashbacks that are not always clearly designated and can be confusing, and while it uses weather and location for mood, as stated earlier, it rarely uses them in any kind of visual way. But a movie this deep and emotionally resonant, a movie about grown-ups without any kind of sales pitch in mind, is a beautiful and rare thing. This is the kind of movie that helps us know who we are in the world, and helps us generate empathy toward others. (That's something sorely needed right now.) For those reasons, and for the overall high quality of characters and storytelling, Manchester by the Sea is recommended without reservation.

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