'Manchester by the Sea' is a true American classic

Grade A

By: 
AARON JENNINGS AARON@LEBANONDAILYRECORD.COM

“Manchester by the Sea” is a composition of emotions, a testament to American filmmaking that makes me proud of the cinematic experience. Harbored by the finest group of independent movie and TV actors and actresses in the business, viewers can expect a powerful punch that will remain relevant for years to come.
 
Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan has created something of value that not only made me want to cry my eyes out but made me laugh harder than nearly every comedy this year.
 
I have always believed that American movies are at their best when the characters are optimistic in horrible circumstances. Think Mrs. Scarlett O’Hara after her husband leaves her in “Gone with the Wind,” or Rick Blane as he walks away from the love of his life in “Casablanca.” Let’s face it, nothing’s more American in movies than an average Joe or Jane telling a joke or saying a pleasant thought to forget about the pain of everyday life.
 
And so — in the spirit of America’s best — I present “Manchester by the Sea.” A drama (with a sprinkle of comedy) about how a small middle-class Massachusetts family deals with the death of a loved one.
Casey Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a once divorced blue-collar maintenance man for an apartment complex. Lee’s work is interrupted one day when he receives news that his brother Joe (wonderfully played by TV star Kyle Chandler in several dreamlike flashbacks) has passed away due to a rare heart disease. Lee is upset with the news of Joe’s death — but also mad at him for leaving Lee the legal guardian of Joe’s 16-year-old son Patrick (Lucas Hedges).
 
This is a shock to “Uncle Lee," and we learn that he doesn’t believe he is worthy to take care of anyone — especially himself. Lee is a man who’d rather keep his feelings inside, so he doesn’t have to deal with them. But so is Patrick. Patrick is a handful. He’s on the high school hockey team, in a bad punk-rock garage band, and has two girlfriends. Patrick remains a handful as Lee attempts to organize the funeral. 
The clash between these two makes for some entertaining moments as they get in a car, drive places, get out of the car, talk to people about the funeral, attempt to remember where they parked the car, then drive home so Patrick can hang with one of his girlfriends. 
 
To give any more of the plot away would be a sin. There is much more that happens, but it’s best to discover it while the movie plays. I will say that there is a chance meeting between Lee and his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams) that showcases the best exchange between any two actors this year. Something happened years ago, and their discussion, like so many scenes in this movie, is hauntingly brilliant. 
 
It’s hard to imagine this movie will go home empty handed come award season. Affleck, Williams, and Chandler all shine and even young Hedges makes the case he should be considered for an Oscar this year with his dramatic fight with a refrigerator. With scenes like this, it's clear that "Manchester by the Sea" is the most emotionally stirring film of recent years. It’s also the most realistic movie I can recall — period.
 
At times, it seems like the actors don’t know their lines. They stumble around their short monologues, and some repeat the same line several times. The real world isn’t a theater. And so, Lonergan’s script reflects it. 
 
 So subtle and calm. But also raw, traumatic and surprisingly hilarious. This should be a blueprint for future screenplays. There are no cheap shots. Nothing is exaggerated for the screen. It’s authentic.
Inside the cinema, the couple behind me was laughing like we were watching a comedy, and the person in front of me was crying like there was no tomorrow. There are funny moments, but this is not a comedy. These characters have a lot on their mind, and a quick joke distracts them from reality. 
 
Several characters in “Manchester by the Sea” suffer more pain than any person should be allowed to live through. Not just the pain of death, but guilt. However, the characters keep living. Some fight back, and other just go with the flow living one day at a time. The world is blue with shades of gray. But there is always hope for something better. Even if the only hope in site is a memory.

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