Manchester By The Sea tells the story of Lee Chandler, an ordinary man who goes to work as a custodian and comes home from work. His pattern only deviates by a visit to a bar to down a few beers. He’s a man who’s drowning in grief and guilt that is only exacerbated by a call that his brother is in the hospital, only to get there and find out that he’s passed away. Lee takes care of funeral arrangements and attends the reading of the will and is shocked by the revelation that he has been chosen as the guardian of his brother’s son, Patrick.
I want to preface this review by saying that I really liked Kenneth Lonergan’s You Can Count on Me and loved Margaret (the extended version). I thought both were excellent movies that showed ordinary characters dealing with ordinary life, some coming-of-age due to a trauma (Margaret), or two siblings still marred by the tragedy of childhood (You Can Count On Me) but this? This was horribly disappointing.
There is no real arc or progression with the character of Lee. He changes slightly at the end, in a way that’s understandable and realistic, but also wholly unsatisfying. It certainly doesn’t justify the running time of almost two hours and twenty minutes. The movie starts as a series of scenes that establish Lee as a character and never really changes gears but nothing ever really builds; scenes just happen.
A lot has been written about the performances here, but each and every performance is held back by the script. Michelle Williams, while very good, is relegated to maybe five to ten minutes of screen-time. The most talked about scene in the movie where she and Lee stumble upon each other in the street is the movie’s best, but because the movie takes so long to get there, it dampens the impact the movie wants the audience to feel. Casey Affleck, who I consider a very good actor, doesn’t have much to work with. He plays the character in the best possible way but it’s not a performance that’s worth all the accolades that have been thrown at it. Lucas Hedges plays precocious and annoying well, I’ll give him that. Some say the same about Anna Paquin in Lonergan’s previous film, Margaret, but at least that movie gave us enough of a reason why. Here, Hedges’ Patrick shows one moment of grief for his father, has one uncomfortable lunch with his mother, and spends the rest of the movie bickering with Lee or trying to have sex with one of his two girlfriends. His character feels more like a stereotype, and a plot device, rather than a fully realized character.
There could’ve been a great movie made out of Manchester By The Sea. If the script had been shortened and extensively revised, taking out the repetitious bickering between Lee and Patrick, and the ‘cutesy’ character moments that were supposed to be humorous only to fall flat on its face. Somewhere within the movie, the elements exist for, at the very least, a good movie.