For our money, there is no one better at depicting reality than Kenneth Lonergan, the best screenwriter you may never have heard of. Writer/director Lonergan affirms his mastery in his third film, “Manchester by the Sea.” The movie tells the story of the troubled and traumatized Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), who finds himself suddenly the guardian of his teenage nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) after his brother’s sudden death. It’s a story of what happens when things in life don’t get any better or any worse.
“Manchester by the Sea” is Lonergan’s first film since the underappreciated and little-seen “Margaret,” which was shot in 2005 but wasn’t released until 2011 due to a six-year legal battle between the director and financier over the editing process.
“Margaret” is about Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin), a teenage girl growing up in Manhattan in the wake of 9/11. Lisa witnesses a fatal bus accident in which she may have been complicit, and the movie follows her as she navigates her guilt.
“Manchester” is a smaller movie, but also focuses on Lee’s life in the aftermath of his own tragic mistake.
The movie is told through flashbacks of Lee, Patrick and his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) and of Lee and his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams) and their three daughters.
As Lee makes his way through his days as a handyman in Boston and his nights in drunken brawls, we assume he is a lazy lowlife.
But when he is called back to his coastal hometown of Manchester by the Sea after Joe’s death, the audience begins to understand his anguish.
Affleck is perfectly cast as he captures Lee’s tortured soul with only his eyes. Newcomer Hedges doesn’t miss a beat as a smart aleck teenager who can barely register his own grief.
Williams spends only a few minutes onscreen, but she is in the movie’s most emotionally intense scene that may not leave you for days.
That is Lonergan’s modus operandi and what he has done so well since 2000’s “You Can Count on Me,” a similar story about adult siblings, Mark Ruffalo and Laura Linney, who reunite after years apart.
All three of Lonergan’s films are so intimate in subject matter that it’s almost as if the audience is invading the characters’ privacy. Each of his films is peppered with subtle humor since a tragedy doesn’t stop life from happening.
“Manchester” is a great if heartbreaking film that stands alone, but we’d recommend checking out “You Can Count on Me” and “Margaret” to really appreciate Lonergan’s talent.