There’s a reason that kids in movies are routinely terrible. These annoying, self-absorbed, one-note monsters can give a story structure, creating a character arc or manipulating a viewer’s emotions. “Manchester by the Sea” is a movie that lacks structure, but it does so by design. It makes sense then that Patrick (Lucas Hedges), the 16-year-old who has just lost his father in the film, is complex, human and decidedly not terrible. Structure hardly seems like a high price to pay for this refreshing change.
“Manchester by the Sea” pulls a bait and switch. You think you’re going to be watching a sad movie about a man who loses his brother and then must learn to care for his teenage nephew, but Joe’s (Kyle Chandler) death isn’t even the tragedy at the heart of the film. His brother, Lee (Casey Affleck), is already tortured and stunted before Joe’s death, and the slow reveal of what happened to him is breathtakingly painful.
There’s obviously the possibility for an arc in this story—Lee is brought back to life by his nephew, in need of a father—but “Manchester by the Sea” is uninterested in that option. It’s a character study committed to authenticity. Its unexpected humor comes from real places, and its dialogue sounds like how people actually speak. In the scene of Joe’s funeral, instrumental music plays over everyone’s interaction so we can see but not hear, and it’s clear that the film prescribes to showing and not telling.
Affleck and Hedges are both outstanding, working on multiple levels while demonstrating strong chemistry with one another. Patrick and Lee take care of each other while giving the other a hard time like family members do, and “Manchester by the Sea” walks that line with confidence. Michelle Williams also disappears completely into the role of Lee’s ex-wife, Randi, adding another layer to a tragedy that doesn’t have a bad guy.
The story may frustrate those who are looking for a resolution or some sort of deeper insight to grief. Patrick, Lee and the inhabitants of Manchester are ordinary people, and the film doesn’t pretend they’re anything else. The ending is unsatisfying in the way that life is unsatisfying, but it gives the sadness a weight that doesn’t feel manipulative.
3.5 stars (out of four)
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