‘Manchester by the Sea’ stuns with stellar cast, slice-of-life moments

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If viewers watched “Manchester by the Sea” with the same level of attention given to the latest video game-based blockbuster, viewers might be inclined to walk away from the 137-minute film, claiming the slow-paced story and chilly New England backdrop were boring. And, well, that would be a shame. The heights to which this gorgeous piece elevates the “slice of life” feature is nothing short of skyscraping, as it is packed with performances, photography and writing that are all so awe-inspiring they make the lengthy run-time and gradual pacing of the film something to be savored.

The film is set primarily in the titular New England town, capturing the type of nuanced-yet-complex local idiosyncrasies that producer Matt Damon and star Casey Affleck – both Massachusetts natives – experienced firsthand. Director and writer Kenneth Lonergan’s adeptness at bringing this microcosm of Northeastern existence to life on the big screen is stunning, with a rock-solid story that is overtly human, occasionally shocking and thoroughly emotional. However, laughing plays just as big a role as crying does in this viewing experience.

“Manchester by the Sea” follows Affleck as Lee Chandler, a somber, hotheaded janitor working in Boston, Massachusetts, who suddenly finds himself back in his hometown of Manchester-by-the-sea when his brother Joe dies of a heart attack, leaving him to look after his 16-year-old nephew, Patrick. Beautifully enough, that’s about the extent of the plot.

Of course, things happen, with seamless switches between past and present giving stunning reveals and textured insight into Chandler’s past relationships and present struggles.

Yet, things don’t happen in such a way that could be easily diagrammed on the Three-act structure diagram handed out to students on the first day of screenwriting class. Instead, the audience gets a collection of scenes – personal moments ranging from quirky to devastating – that come together to create story in one of its purest forms.

A film of this nature needs stellar performances to live up to its own potential. Fortunately, the entire cast of “Manchester by the Sea” is near-flawless. Casey Affleck’s interpretation of the role of Lee Chandler is on another level of acting entirely, as he seamlessly assumes the character’s identity. Affleck expresses a full range of stormy emotions while only uttering a few words.

The supporting cast is oozing with chemistry and individual talent, from Michelle Williams as Lee’s ex-wife Randi, to Lucas Hedges as his nephew Patrick and Kyle Chandler as Joe Chandler. Years of pain are expressed among the actors in mere glances, with the same pain dissolving in moments of witty, laugh-out-loud dialogue.

The critical acclaim and award nominations for “Manchester by the Sea” are nearly unanimous, making for a shining example of a film that nearly everyone can agree is excellent. This is a movie worth watching, pondering and remembering.

Rating:  4.5/5 stars