Convincing someone that watching a two-hour long family drama about melancholy and loss is a worth-while cinematic experience can be quite the feat.
But writer/director Kenneth Lonergan’s rural Massachusetts tale turned Oscar contender “Manchester By The Sea” is well worth the effort.
The film follows Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), a 40-something Boston janitor forced back to his childhood home in Manchester to take care of his teenage nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) after the death of Lee’s brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler). Lonergan’s intensely powerful screenplay is unsurprisingly lifted by the talented cast of actors who bring authenticity and levity to his words, including Oscar nominee Michelle Williams in a supporting role as Lee’s ex-wife Randi.
“Manchester By The Sea” hinges solely on Affleck’s ability to create depth of character in actions rather than words. As written on the page, Lee is a very quiet, distant man who has separated himself from the world, but that’s difficult to hear through dialogue alone.
Doing his best work since 2008’s “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” Affleck layers Lee both by how he interprets the character physically and by what he doesn’t do. It’s incredibly difficult to convey a guarded person via tone, but Affleck does a masterful job emoting non-verbally with such a soft, sullen demeanor. “Manchester By The Sea” represents Affleck’s best performance of his career and makes him a clear front-runner for an Academy Award for Best Actor.
Hedges, a pleasant surprise in the Oscars’ Best Supporting Actor category, pulls emotional double duty in “Manchester” as Lee’s nephew Patrick, providing Affleck with a worthy counterpart in heavier scenes and offering up some much needed levity at various points throughout the script. Hedges goes to great lengths to allow viewers to see the emotional contrast between Lee and Patrick play out on screen while still offering up a compelling familiar bond that most uncle-nephew relationships lack in cinema.
Seen entirely in flashbacks sprinkled throughout the film, Chandler’s honest, steadying portrayal of Lee’s brother Joe gives audiences added perspective on who Lee is as a man despite being a man of few words and helps develop the emotional core of the film. In fact, “Manchester” is peppered with a number of compelling minor performances from actors like Matthew Broderick and Gretchen Mol to bring Lonergan’s world to life.
Williams recently earned her third Academy Award nomination for a dazzling supporting turn as Lee’s ex-wife Randi. Despite her limited screen time, she packs so much power into every frame that often outclasses Affleck in their scenes together, which is a hard feat in and of itself. Lee and Randi’s final conversation late in the film will be studied for years to come thanks to Williams’ brilliance in the scene and will serve as her Oscar reel next month.
Each and every word of Lonergan’s masterful screenplay comes to life with such vibrancy that it’s often difficult to remember that viewers are watching a movie rather than peeking in on a Boston-area family’s real lives. Much of this feel comes from the subtle, reserved cinematography and direction that acts not to obtrude the acting work done on screen and only to clarify a sense of space and time.
“Manchester By The Sea” recently earned six Academy Award nominations, including a Best Picture nod. Likely, the slow-burning drama will fall just outside the winner’s circle come Oscar night, save for Affleck doubling down on his Golden Globes win for Best Actor in what has proved to be a two-horse race between Affleck and two-time Oscar winner Denzel Washington in “Fences.”
The film is wrapping up an extended theatrical run that began nearly a year ago when Amazon Studios bought the rights to “Manchester” at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. Though the drama will still be shown in a variety of markets over the next month, Amazon is expected to release the film digitally through its streaming services within a week or so.
Regardless of how you catch the film. “Manchester By The Sea” is certainly one of the five best films released in 2016 and a major awards contender worthy of taking a chance on between now and Oscars night on Feb. 26.