Manchester By the Sea Offers Timely Election-Season Escapism in the Form of Existential Dread

It's written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, the New York playwright who also wrote and directed the movies Margaret and You Can Count on Me and contributed to the Analyze This and Gangs of New York screenplays. Manchester By the Sea arrives in theaters with the help of the Massachusetts mafia (producer Matt Damon and star Casey Affleck's production company, the Affleck/Middleton Project).

Any notion that Affleck has been acting under the shadow of big brother Ben is obliterated by the leading man's Oscar-frontrunner performance in Manchester By the Sea, which the National Board of Review named the Best Film of the Year on Nov. 29. From what I've seen so far in 2016, I agree.

Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a Boston handyman who is hollowed out inside because of a horrific family tragedy that happened in the town that gives the movie its title. When his boat-captain brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) dies, Lee returns to the quaint New England fishing village to take care of family affairs. Lee soon learns that role has been greatly expanded because Joe left him the house, a struggling boat business and guardianship of a 16-year-old son.

Ben Chandler (Lucas Hedges) is a typical know-it-all teenager with way more game than Lee, to whom the boy represents the dreams and lust for life the uncle has extinguished. There is serious and deserved talk about Best Supporting Actor consideration for Hedges, who expertly delivers light and emotional moments.

I'd be interested in getting my hands on Lonergan's script—not because I want to read the thing, but so I can see how many pages there are. There can't be as many as one would expect for a 137-minute running time because Manchester By the Sea is filled with many long stretches of little or no dialogue, as well as multiple passages and montages.

These are set to a most-eclectic collection of thunderous music, including Albinoni's Adagio in G Minor, two excerpts from Handel's Messiah and “I'm Beginning to See the Light” sung by the Ink Spots and Ella Fitzgerald. Lesley Barber's original score includes a soaring operatic piece sung a cappella by her daughter Jacoba.

But carrying the film is Affleck's sad-sack stare and beaten-down body language, which convey the daily dread he experiences merely existing in a one-room dump, the bonus to his minimum-wage paycheck for repairing the leaks, unclogging the toilets and shoveling the walks of tenants in four Boston buildings. It's a life Lee prefers to the one he is thrust into, which demands more responsibility and, most of all, returning to a town filled with the ghosts of his past.

The tragedy that produced Lee's nightmares make him a pariah in some corners of Manchester. Like writers of serial dramas from our current golden age of television (and cable and streaming), Lonergan seamlessly flips the story back and forth through time, leaving it up to the viewer to keep up.

The layers of the story build toward a brilliantly acted scene on a Manchester street where Lee happens to bump into his ex-wife, Randi (Michelle Williams, in yet another remarkable performance). Previously seen scorning her husband in a flashback that had her on a gurney being loaded into an ambulance, the remarried Randi now wants to lunch with her ex. “I don't have anything big to say,” she begins, but the audience at this point in the film knows how big it is that she is saying anything in a friendly manner to him. Each fumble the exchange that follows, but they cannot hide their pain, remorse and enduring love.

“There's nothing there,” Lee finally says, which does not explain how he feels about Randi, but rather that he believes the capacity to love was sucked out of him.

Christ, I'm choking up writing this.

So, yes, if it's the feel-good hit of the winter you are after to cure your post-election blues, Manchester By the Sea ain't it. Fortunately, in theaters this weekend, you can experience the escapism of the Los Angeles love-letter musical La La Land (which also enjoys good buzz), the raunchy humor of Office Party or the rote horrors of Friend Request.

Then again, if you need something to release that good cry . . .

Manchester By the Sea was written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan; and stars Casey Affleck, Kyle Chandler, Michelle Williams, Lucas Hedges, C.J. Wilson, Gretchen Mol and Matthew Broderick. Now playing countywide.

Matt Coker has been engaging, enraging and entertaining readers of newspapers, magazines and websites for decades. He spent the first 13 years of his career in journalism at daily newspapers before “graduating” to OC Weekly in 1995 as the paper’s first calendar editor. He went on to be managing editor, executive editor and is now senior staff writer.

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