In 2000, I took my first trip to the Sundance Film Festival and saw what has long been one of my top three favorite movies of all time: You Can Count On Me, the first film by writer/director/playwright Kenneth Lonergan. But with just his third film, Manchester by the Sea, Lonergan may have bumped You Can Count On Me down to the top five. Watch the trailer for Manchester By the Sea below.
You Can Count On Me and Manchester by the Sea actually have a lot in common. You Can Count On Me, which stars Laura Linney and a then-unknown Mark Ruffalo in his first film, is about siblings Samantha and Terry, who lost their parents at a very young age and subsequently grew up to be almost polar opposites due to the differing ways they processed their shared tragedy. The film’s plot (inasmuch as there is one) follows the tensions and changes that arise when the aimless but charismatic Terry reluctantly returns to their hometown (which Sammy has never left) and forms a relationship with Sammy’s eight-year-old son (Rory Culkin), who she is raising alone.
Manchester by the Sea revisits many of the same themes. In the film, Casey Affleck plays Lee, a solitary, friendless janitor living in Boston who must return to his Massachusetts hometown of Manchester by the Sea when his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) dies. But when Joe’s will is reviewed, Lee is shocked to learn that Joe had chosen Lee to be the sole guardian of Joe’s sixteen-year-old son Patrick (Lucas Hedges), who Lee was once close to but has become distanced from. As Lee struggles to make funeral arrangements, deal with Joe’s estate, create normalcy for Patrick, and find a way out of being responsible for him, we slowly learn through flashbacks about what ended Lee’s marriage with his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams) and why he left the New England fishing village where his family has lived for generations.
So in both You Can Count On Me and Manchester by the Sea, we have lost men reluctantly returning to small hometowns, their struggle to be surrogate fathers to their nephews, and an examination of the different ways people deal with tragedy. But instead of being evidence of Lonergan’s limitations, these similarities serve to emphasize how much Lonergan has developed in every aspect of writing, directing, and filmmaking during these past fifteen years since his confident, excellent directorial debut.
When I first saw You Can Count On Me at the Sundance film festival in 2000, it was an absolute revelation. Not only was it immediately apparent that this unknown, somewhat mush-mouthed Ruffalo guy would soon become a huge star, but his performance, the dialogue, cinematography, and everything else in You Can Count On Me combined to achieve a realism I had never experienced before in a movie. You Can Count On Me is still the best movie I’ve ever seen about the sometimes complicated relationship that can exist between siblings, and it showed me that a film doesn’t need big stakes to be dramatic. For a normal person like Sammy, having a crummy new boss, finding someone to pick her son up after school, and living with an unreliable family member provides almost more drama than she can handle.
But Manchester by the Sea takes cinematic realism to a level that I would’ve never imagined possible — and it’s mesmerizing. The cinematography is stunningly clear, bright, and crisp, yet every location looks like it was shot exactly as it was found with no additional lighting or set decoration. The naturalness of the dialogue and the way characters often talk over each other makes you realize that most movies you’ve ever seen, even ones you love, often sound nothing like the way people actually communicate. And with Manchester by the Sea being very much a story about working-class New England men, that means wonderful Massachusetts accents and an emotional palette mostly consisting of three colors: sarcastic ball busting, rage, and silence due to an inability to express emotions other than rage.
At the same time, Lonergan knows all too well that many of the most dramatic, difficult, and emotional moments in life are ones where no one knows what to say to each other, and Lonergan has the confidence to let viewers linger in these moments as characters’ expressions, eyes, body language, and the few words they manage to utter convey thoughts and emotions more honestly and accurately than any monologue. The area of life where it’s perhaps most difficult to know what to say is when a family member dies, and not only has Lonergan captured this awkwardness, but also the mundanity of death. From the moment Lee receives the call that his brother has been hospitalized, Manchester by the Sea revolves around Lee’s struggle to manage the details of a death in America. How do you get a body from a hospital morgue to a funeral parlor? What will happen to Joe’s boat? Is Lee supposed to provide Patrick with fatherly advice?
Of course, the primary concern of the film is the “detail” in Joe’s will that Lee become Patrick’s guardian and move back to Manchester, along with the mystery of why Lee left and can’t stand being back. And for this, Casey Affleck gives one of the most remarkable performances I’ve ever seen, which is actually more like two performances since the loving, playful, gregarious Lee we see in flashbacks is so different from the hollowed-out man we meet emptying garbage and shoveling snow. It’s a haunting portrayal of a life lived beneath an ocean of regret, and is absolutely the most Oscar-worthy performance of the year. Lucas Hedges deserves a best supporting actor nomination for his performance as Lee’s dramatic foil, with the well-liked, wise-assed Patrick as engaged and connected to his community as Lee is alienated from it, and furious at the idea that Lee might force him to leave it. Michelle Williams should also earn a best supporting actress nomination for her beautiful performance as Randi, a woman trying bravely to move forward from a past Lee can’t escape.
But the real star of Manchester by the Sea has to be Kenneth Lonergan, who in just his third film has cemented himself as one of the most talented screenwriters and directors working today. His ability to capture the voices, rhythms, images, beauty, and messiness of everyday lives in specific places is so prodigious and accurate that it makes you wonder how every other screenwriter and director in cinematic history could have gotten it so wrong for so long. I would love to see the screenplay for Manchester by the Sea since it’s hard to imagine how such natural-sounding, overlapping dialogue could even be written. Yet Lonergan is also able to weave a consistent, organic humor throughout Manchester by the Sea that never feels forced, which is no small feat in a film focused on how people deal with tragedy. Make no mistake — Manchester by the Sea somehow manages to be very funny.
I’ve now seen Manchester by the Sea four times in five weeks, something I’ve never done before. But I guess that’s what you do when you encounter the truly exceptional, even if it looks and feels exactly like real life.