The third overrated film of the EIFF (and there will likely only be these three) is the best of the three: Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea. As good as it is, however, it is not (in my opinion) the masterpiece critics are claiming it to be.
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 the traumatic memories of Manchester that haunt Lee make it impossible for him to consider staying and looking after Patrick.
Woven throughout this story (and forming half of the film) are flashbacks that show us Lee’s life in Manchester before moving to Boston (where he works as a condo handyman). This gives us an opportunity to get to know Joe, Lee’s ex-wife wife, Randi (Michelle Williams) and Joe’s ex-wife, Elise (Gretchen Mol).
Manchester by the Sea is a beautiful subtle film that delivers its revelations at a leisurely but well-timed pace. Affleck is superb as Lee (Oscar nomination almost assured) and Lee is a believable and largely sympathetic character, a man whose life is overwhelming him beyond what he can handle. The agony and turmoil he is experiencing is what makes this film special, though sometimes Lee’s silence is too much, limiting my engagement with his pain. The rest of the acting is also very good. Lonergan’s screenplay is sharp and unpredictable (always a good thing), but there are some flaws (besides the one just mentioned).
The major flaws of Manchester by the Sea revolve around the character of Patrick. Patrick plays a key role in the film, from first to last, and it just never feels quite right. 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, something which would have made the film more engaging and more moving for me. If both Lee and Patrick (the film’s central characters) had engaged me more, Manchester by the Sea might have been the masterpiece many critics see.
I am giving Manchester by the Sea a solid ***+ and a high recommendation to readers. You’ll definitely want to check this one out. My mug is up.