Some auteurs are pretty easy to describe in just a few words. Alfred Hitchcock: maker of meticulously planned out Hollywood thrillers, usually about blondes in danger. Quentin Tarantino: maker of witty but often violent genre exercises filled with homages and references to the pop culture of the past. Spike Lee: maker of colorful and energetic movies about the black experience. All of these one sentence descriptions are reductive and overlook key elements of all those filmmakers’ styles, but the fact that their work can be so easily generalized does say something about the extent to which they were able to put a distinct stamp on their films. There are however some directors who are still certainly auteurs but who aren’t as easily pigeonholed. For instance, Elia Kazan is certainly an auteur and given enough time I’m sure there are film scholars who can come up with any number of linkages between his films to prove it but I don’t know that there’s a way I could describe his body of work in a hundred and forty characters that would make him sound terribly distinct from most other directors and his style wouldn’t necessarily jump out as uniquely his at first glance. Another director like this is Kenneth Lonergan who, like Kazan, got his start working in theater but became more widely known when he directed the 2002 film You Can Count on Me. Since then he hasn’t been terribly prolific in part because he’s still been doing some theater work and in part because of the troubled post-production on his 2011 film Margaret, but his new movie Manchester by the Sea may finally cement his place among the top American filmmakers.
The film’s title refers to Manchester-by-the-Sea Massachusetts, a town of about five thousand people (Wikipedia tells me it adopted its unusual name to distinguish it from the nearby Manchester, New Hampshire). However, the movie begins in Boston, where Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) has been working as a superintendent at an apartment complex. Suddenly one day he gets a call telling him to return to the titular city because his brother has had a medical emergency. When he gets there he learns that the worst has happened: his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler), who had a heart condition, has suddenly died of a cardiac arrest. His ex-wife Elise (Gretchen Mol), who had a history of addiction is out of the picture and this leaves Lee’s 16 year old nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) without a parent. To Lee’s surprise he finds that he’s been named as Patrick’s legal guardian by Joe’s will, a role he supposes he doesn’t really see himself able to fulfil in part because his hometown does nothing but bring back bad memories and living their again could force him to constantly be running into his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams), with whom he has a lot of baggage.
Manchester by the Sea reminds me a little of the great 2008 film Rachel Getting Married in that both movies are about characters who seem to have a rather stilted relationship with their families and you are quite sure what’s going on until something about their pasts is revealed about at the 1/3 point in their narrative. This movie is a bit different in that it doesn’t contrast this apparent sadness against a joyful backdrop, although in an odd way it sort of does. If I were to describe this movie’s plot in more detail it would seem like a very heavy piece of work, but in fact the movie is oddly kind of funny. I certainly wouldn’t call it a comedy or recommend anyone go see it expecting it to be a laugh riot but the characters all have a sort of gregarious Boston rapport and consequently there are more laugh lines here than you’d expect from a story steeped in tragedy. That is not an easy tone to balance but there’s something kind of insightful and true to life about it. A lot of lesser movies about people with bad stuff in their pasts really lean into that and give themselves these really oppressive tones and have their characters being completely glum all the time, but in reality most depressed people are able to put on a functional face most of the time even if their being torn up inside and that’s sort of what’s going on with Lee here.
It’s been said in the media that at one point Matt Damon (who is involved as a producer) was tapped to star in this film, which is tough for me to picture given that he’s a bit too much of a movie star at this point to really be believable in something this raw and down to earth. Casey Affleck by contrast is perfect; he has the same Bostonian authenticity of his brother Ben Affleck but in much less polished package that’s easier to buy in the role of an everyman. Lucas Hedges is also quite the discovery as Lee’s teenage nephew, who also has to pull off that tricky balance of inward grief juxtaposed against an outwardly stable exterior. Michelle Williams also does spectacularly in a small but pivotal role as Affleck’s ex-wife, and while Kyle Chandler isn’t exactly the most novel choice to play a stable small town father, he is convincing as someone who would be Casey Affleck’s brother. The rest of the cast is also very well filled out, mostly with lesser known actors. There are maybe a couple of Massachusetts accents here or there that are a little over the top and there was a cameo late in the film that mostly felt like a distraction, but otherwise this is one hell of an acting showcase.
It’s not terribly easy to talk about this movie because it’s hard to explain what it is that makes it so incredibly on point. It’s just a movie that does everything so right. It has a great script with quality dialog and which employs flashbacks beautifully, the cast is great, the location is interesting, Lonergan manages to keep things energetic without employing unneeded visual gimmicks, and the emotions are all harnessed perfectly. There are so many bad and clichéd roads this could have gone down and I really admire how it manages to handle the material just right and never becomes either saccharine or pointlessly nihilistic. It’s not the kind of movie that’s trying to re-write the language of cinema or make some kind of wildly profound statement, but the way the film digs deep into the lives of its rich characters id both affecting and rewarding.