Manchester By The Sea Review: Casey Affleck Excels In Subtle Story Of Family And Loss

Kenneth Lonergan drama is an early must-see in Oscar season

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Real life, as we all know, isn't about neat story arcs and happy endings. We don't have sudden epiphanies that change us forever. We don't learn to become better versions of ourselves overnight. We let go of the pains from our past gradually, or not at all.

Which is precisely what Kenneth Lonergan's quietly powerful Manchester by the Sea - a drama determined not to be too dramatic – is at pains to reflect. It is a film with a commitment to verisimilitude that is both admirable and occasionally frustrating.

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Casey Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a misanthropic loner whose life is turned upside down when his brother dies and names him guardian of his 16-year-old son Patrick (played by Lucas Hedges). As Lee struggles to settle into the role of surrogate father, we see in flashbacks that he was once a happy-go-lucky husband and parent to his own three children until an unthinkable tragedy turned him into the emotionally stunted, malfunctioning man of today.

From the film's feel-good trailer, you'd assume Lee's relationship with his nephew would end up 'saving' him in the usual way of things, but Lonergan's script doggedly resists anything approaching salvation for its central character. "I can't beat it," Lee tells Patrick towards the film's climax - if you can call it that - referring to his haunted past. When we leave him he's still getting drunk and brawling, still alone and unhappy. His ex-wife Randi, a small role played fantastically by Michelle Williams, has remained in the hometown Lee has been forced to come back to. She's done a better job of moving on, but shares what she calls his 'heart that will be broken forever'. In one beautifully executed scene - the film's highlight – she offers a chance to begin the healing process that Lee immediately rejects.

Manchester by the Sea's other main character, Patrick, is stunted in his own way. He responses to his father's death by marshalling all the defences of adolescence: he becomes stroppy and entitled with his new father figure, preoccupies himself with chasing girls and playing in a band. These scenes of typical teenager behaviour take on an uneasy sort of humour: he's doing what boys are supposed to do, all while - we are forced to more or less assume - his heart is also breaking.

The film is full of impressive performances – a career highlight from Affleck and promising turn from Hedges who has a Jesse Esienberg-like way of hinting at concealed intelligence – and some unexpected moments of comedy that come out of Longergan's gift for authentic dialogue. The film is shot in the same un-showy manner as it is written and is all the better for it, whether we're in humdrum Massachusetts suburbia or the blue collar shoreline that underpins both the community and the relationships between the male characters.

The problem – and it's a small but niggling one – is that subtlety can be its own form of excess. With films like this, I'm always reminded of a scene from Charlie Kaufman's superb comedy Adaptation in which Nicholas Cage's aspiring writer tells his screenwriting tutor he wants to write a story in which "nothing happens, people don't change, they struggle and are frustrated and nothing is resolved, a reflection of the real world." Not only is the real world emphatically not like that, comes the bellowing reply, but a film like that "will bore your audience to tears."

It's not that nothing happens in Manchester by the Sea – on the contrary, plenty does. It's that the reactions to these events – the expressions of grief or anger or even love - are so muted or oblique, I felt my investment in the story begin to flag. At times, it feels like a film overly preoccupied with what it doesn't want to be, which is what I suppose at this time of year we'd call 'Oscar-bait'.

But in real life there are sometimes explosions of emotion, life-shattering conversations, sons crying for their dead father. Manchester by the Sea isn't interested in these moments, despite telling a story that justifies any number of them. The result is a very good film that leaves you with the nagging sense it could have been great.