Manchester by the Sea

Family trauma in small-town Massachusetts

Hailed by critics as a masterpiece and viewed as a likely Academy Award nominee in all major categories, Manchester by the Sea will be coming to theaters on November 18. While I highly recommend this excellent film to most readers, for me it fell short of masterpiece status.

Haunted by traumatic memories of his life in Manchester, Lee can neither imagine taking his nephew Patrick away from Manchester nor coming back to live there himself.

Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea stars Casey Affleck as Lee Chandler, a man who returns to his small hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts, to attend the funeral of his beloved older brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), only to discover that Joe’s will stipulates that Lee is now the legal guardian of Joe’s teenage son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Lee and Patrick have always been close, but Lee, who is haunted by traumatic memories of his life in Manchester, can neither imagine taking Patrick away from Manchester nor coming back to live there himself.

Woven throughout this story (and forming half the film) are flashbacks that show us Lee’s life in Manchester before he moved to Boston (where he works as a condo handyman). This gives us an opportunity to get to know Joe and his ex-wife, Elise (Gretchen Mol), as well as Lee’s ex‑wife, Randi (Michelle Williams). But the film focuses on Lee, a man whose life is overwhelming him beyond what he can handle.

What makes Manchester by the Sea special is Affleck’s superb, brooding performance as Lee (an Oscar nomination is almost assured), making Lee a believable and largely sympathetic character. Affleck allows us to see every nuance of the agony and turmoil Lee experiences, though I must add that sometimes Lee’s silence is a bit too much, and limits our engagement with his pain. The rest of the acting is also very good, though I do have some complaints in this area, namely that too little airtime is given to the women in the film, and that I (along with the rest of the audience) found Matthew Broderick’s cameo as Elise’s new husband more than a little distracting.

Manchester by the Sea is a beautiful, subtle film that delivers its revelations at a leisurely but well-timed pace. Lonergan’s screenplay is sharp and unpredictable (which is always a good thing), and when the film stays with the themes of grief, redemption, broken families, Lee’s personal traumas, and the ups and downs of small-town life, it is brilliant. And the film’s consistent attempts at authenticity add to its strong indie feel (which is also a good thing). But there’s another key part of the film, and for me that part contained a number of flaws.

Those flaws revolve around the character of Patrick. Patrick is a central figure in the film, from the first scene to the last, and his personality and behavior just never feel quite right (for which I don’t blame Hedges’s acting). For example, Patrick’s reaction to his father’s death doesn’t feel credible, even for a self-absorbed teenager. And that self-absorption is itself a problem, as it regularly frustrates opportunities to sympathize with him. Such sympathy would have made the film more engaging and more moving for me. Perhaps if both Lee and Patrick (the film’s central characters) had engaged me more, I might have agreed with the critics and called Manchester by the Sea a masterpiece.

Nevertheless, Manchester by the Sea is a powerful, thought-provoking arthouse drama. If those last two words don’t scare you off, this film is highly recommended.


Manchester by the Sea is rated R for language throughout and some sexual content.


All reviews express the opinions of the reviewer, not necessarily the views of Third Way.