With a BAFTA under his belt, and an Oscar likely to follow, Casey Affleck must be feeling pretty good about life. In this, he will finally slipping out of the character of Lee Chandler, the central figure of Manchester by the Sea. Lee’s misery is clear and abject from the film’s opening, and Affleck subtly and engrossingly evokes the nuances of his sensibilities throughout.
It is a superb performance, conveying at times seething anger, heart-breaking sadness, cautious pleasure and latent wit. Kenneth Lonergan, writing and directing, has wrought a character of depth and utter realism – his habits and mannerisms, his stoicism and repressions. The result is mesmerising in its humanity, and has the younger Affleck a shoe-in for this year’s Oscar. His supporting cast is impressive in almost equal measure; Michelle Williams is a fleeting but devastating presence in the film, and Kyle Chandler makes similarly efficient work of characterising Lee’s older brother.
Manchester’s surprise element, in a way, is its youngest principal actor, Lucas Hedges, who plays Lee’s nephew Patrick with an honesty that at times makes for painful viewing. His nomination for an Academy Award is far less likely to be fruitful, but this is nonetheless a ruthlessly truthful portrayal of a teenager dealing with an expected tragedy. His grief hides in plain sight, and surfaces only rarely. Meanwhile his everyday preoccupations are those of any of his peers: hockey, girls and his cringeworthy garage band.
The band provides examples of the most surprising elements of Manchester by the Sea – genuinely funny scenes and lines. Lonergan’s script doesn’t pretend that a teenager’s grief is utterly all-consuming, and allows Patrick’s exploits to be played for fun in a heartfelt way. Like anyone, with the exception of Lee, we worry that the young man is shutting out his feelings, but we also empathise with his fears and desires.
As Lee and Patrick struggle to reconnect, and attempt to deal with the mess they have been landed with, the film lingers with them to watch their dynamic unfold. The pace is gentle, and there is no preoccupation with an ending or neat conclusion, which makes for a pleasant amble into melancholy, contradictory though that may sound. For the story and its telling to also evoke such convincing and winning familial contentment is a wonderful flourish.