Grade: A-

Note: My first impression after seeing the movie at VIFF is here. The one you’re about to read is after my second viewing a few days ago.

“You don’t understand. There’s nothin’ there.”

Manchester By The Sea is as emotionally dense as the music that accompanies it. Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan recreates life rather than “comedy” or “drama” specifically, and so all of it falls into this boiling pot of troubled relationships in a small coastal town.

For reasons left unknown until the film’s midpoint, Casey Affleck’s character Lee is closed off to everyone. He doesn’t give time of day to polite, flirtatious neighbours, fuming neighbours, or anybody else. He works maintenance and carries out other janitorial duties in their building in exchange for room and board. That is all. Until he gets a call from a doctor.

In an early display of Lonergan’s ability to truly emulate reality, he cuts Lee’s drive from his town to Manchester in a montage, and it isn’t sweeping, or exciting, or… anything, really. There are just plain shots of streets through a windshield, vision warped by falling rain, that come one after another like a slide show. At the same time, he makes plans for a co-worker to take over for him in the building until he gets back.

Then he reaches a hospital. He learns his divorced older brother Joe (a perfect Kyle Chandler) is dead of a heart attack at 5o-something. Next order of business, get his brother’s teenage nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges).

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA, from left, Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, 2016. ph: Claire Folger. © Roadside

Patrick is an aggressive, wry kid, a good match for what seems to be an emotionless Lee. Only once, when he kisses his older brother, do we see Lee express anything more than a blink and a fidget in the first half of the film.

The hope Hedges’ performance brings to the film is actually its best quality. Not because we don’t expect Lee and Patrick to eventually get along, we’ve seen enough movies about traumas that bring people together, it’s going to happen. But I’ll tout it once again, it’s the truth Affleck and Hedges bring to their performances, and Lonergan’s ability to conjure a sense of disorganized reality that makes the hope genuinely effective.

In order to balance the sadness, Lonergan gives us an enjoyable venture into Lucas’ teenage life. He’s got two girlfriends. He and his respective girlfriends struggle to hookup because parents hover outside every door. He’s in a crappy garage rock band that actually plays in a garage. It’s mostly fun and games, and the trials a young person goes through during their teenage years, in addition to his emotional stress, which threatens to cripple him. This elevates from an American Pie kind of teenager, only after crude comedy and (probably) cruder sex. There’s depth in surprising places.

One night, long after Lee takes guardianship of him, Patrick goes to grab something from the freezer. He grabs the wrong thing. Its contents fall to the floor. As he goes to put it all back, he hits his had on the still-open freezer door. This causes a panic attack. The freezer, he explains to Lee through shallow breaths, reminds him that his dead father is still in a freezer, all because the ground is too cold where they live to dig a grave.

At this moment, both times I went to see the movie there were audible coos from the crowd.

Of course, in other parts there was laughter, and others tears. I could go on to describe the midpoint, the crux of both Lee’s life and Affleck’s performance, but I won’t spoil it.

Just go see it. Lonergan creates movie-level reaction from his audience with nothing more than realistic circumstances in his movie. That’s good writing.

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