With one sweep of his viewfinder, Kenneth Lonergan wrote and directed his way into my heart 16 years ago with his directorial debut, You Can Count On Me. Small but mighty, this little independent film was so infinitely compelling, so gorgeously scored, and quietly padded with a breakout role from Mark Ruffalo and the most mournful performance by the stellar Laura Linney, that it’s wedged its way into a permanent spot on any favorite film list.
Though he’s spent much of his career as a playwright—most recently directing Michael Cera, Kieran Culkin, and Tavi Gevinson in This is Our Youth on Broadway—Lonergan has also written some unexpected cinema classics: Analyze This, Gangs of New York, even an episode of the animated series Doug (!), none of which are a tonal match for You Can Count On Me, every bit Lonergan’s in his own right. I was, of course, thrilled when at last, 12 years later, he released his next directorial oeuvre, Margaret, which took three months to film and three years (and multiple editors) to edit, was tied up in multiple lawsuits, and, well, sadly, it showed. It alllllll showed.
But no matter! We’re not here to rehash the past, we’re here to revel in the present, the deliciously masterful present. Longergan is back in true form with Manchester by the Sea, a truly gorgeous, and not to give away my hand here, but perfect, perfect film. One good sign is that the whole press screening, full of hardened critic-types, were simultaneously blubbering like babies, quietly sniffling in unison, utterly overcome by the human drama that Lonergan crafts and illustrates so expertly, so genuinely, so lovingly, with such tender custodial care.
In Manchester, Casey Affleck plays an emotionally-troubled janitor in Boston who is called back to his hometown when his brother (Kyle Chandler) dies of a heart attack and he is named in his will as the new caretaker of his teen nephew, Patrick. Affleck gives what is certainly the most powerful, riveting, and downright commanding performance of his career here. He has a really remarkable quality of instilling in the viewer a desire to care for him, lift him up—it’s this “little boy lost” characteristic that is endlessly endearing, and a quality that only really crescendos once the film finally, in its last third, takes us in flashback to understand why this particular quality is so vital to this character.
What’s more is that Affleck gives this stunner of a performance with so little dialogue, as his character is so short of tongue that we see multiple women who just want to love him become exasperated by his anti-chatty sensibility. His character is so visibly broken, so emotionally detached from his brother’s death, that the audience lies in wait for the discovery of what kind of grief he could have possibly endured to arrive at this mute, downtrodden point in his life where he has resigned to attend to the filthy, broken, unseemly, and otherwise unwanted detritus in other people’s homes and lives.
The rest of the casting in this film is beyond perfect. Kyle Chandler plays the fisherman dad that everyone loves, because he is, to the audience of the world, so perfectly the dad that everyone really does love. Equally as lovable as his on-screen brother, the pair emanates East Coast blue-collar charm. Lucas Hedges (Moonrise Kingdom) is a marvel as the young, horny high-schooler Patrick, nailing Lonergan’s naturalistic dialogue and providing the moments of comedic levity so needed in a family drama so tough, dense, and often bleak. Michelle Williams, as Casey Affleck’s ex-wife, brings a power to a third-act scene with Affleck that threatens to break the entire audience in half.
Manchester by the Sea puts Kenneth Lonergan squarely in the master category of the middle-class American family drama, his hyper-realistic style and splendid cast buttressed by the unrelenting nature of grief and the sea.