Manchester by the Sea ★★★★½

It's a mark of quality that despite the grueling subject matter of Manchester by the Sea, I would have spent more than the 137 minutes Kenneth Lonergan gives us inside the world of this film. The rich tapestry of characters with which Lonergan populates the rural Massachusetts town of the title go a long way to absorbing and reflecting the grief that permeates this story, and are instantly relatable for anyone who has spent any significant time in a small town.

Casey Affleck plays the quiet and reserved Lee Chandler, returning to his home town after the death of his older brother (Kyle Chandler). Affleck's performance is deeply affecting in its subtlety, achingly simple and real, deserving of an Oscar but without an Oscar-worthy moment. Lee is immensely broken for reasons that go deeper than his brother's death, which he seems oddly unaffected by initially. He lives alone in one room. He gets into bar fights with strangers. His relationships with others, including his family, his ex-wife (the excellent Michelle Williams), and the teenage nephew (Lucas Hedges in a breakout role) he finds himself suddenly caring for, are a mixture of matter-of-fact and uncomfortable, but not indifferent. Everyone here has a story to tell, even as none of them knows how to tell it.

Because grief is confusing. And Manchester by the Sea does a magnificent job capturing the minutia of how grief takes over our lives. The phone calls and bad news that come at the most inappropriate times. The too-hushed tones of people who know and the too-boisterous tones of those who don't. The way numbness gives way to crushing pain. The way time seems to become nonexistent even as the world outside keeps moving. The ways location evokes memory. The cruel indifference of procedure. Does anyone know the "right" way to talk to each other or to behave after losing someone? No, but as Manchester shows, we look for the ways through the fog of grief, we look for awkward and stilted words to get through what seems unspeakable. Sometimes we cry and it seems like we'll never stop. Or sometimes we can't cry and it seems like we never will. And sometime we find a moment. We might even laugh, and that's okay too. I will never look at frozen chicken the same way again.

There are almost no real flaws to Manchester by the Sea, an elegiac drama that mourns its characters' pain rather than revel in it. I do think Lesley Barber's heavily orchestrated choral score works against the film, undermining the authenticity and humanity that so many scenes carry. It does a disservice to the biggest, most authentically dramatic sequence in the film, by making it more heavily dramatized than it needs to be. It could be that the contrast is meant to hint at the sacredness with which we treat death when the lived reality of the experience feels anything but. However, it is out of step with the general, subdued aesthetic of everything else the film is doing.

Manchester by the Sea is by far the most human film I've seen all year, a heartbreaking look at the way brokenness takes some of us completely, irreparably, and the ways we are, even then, valuable.

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