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Kenneth Lonergan’s ‘Manchester by the Sea’ Takes Sundance by Storm

Kenneth Lonergan's 'Manchester by the Sea' Takes Sundance by Storm

After Sundance’s eventful first weekend, Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester by the Sea” has emerged as the festival favorite, with awestruck reviews and a $10 million sale to Amazon Studios that’s one of the biggest in Sundance history. (There’s even been some insanely premature Oscar talk, but we’ll pretend that never happened.) Lonergan’s followup to the troubled “Margaret” in some ways feels like a reprise of that movie’s focus on lingering grief, mixed with the taciturn sibling relationships of “You Can Count on Me.” But that doesn’t begin to do justice to “Manchester’s” sprawling canvas, its vivid sense of a community touched, and yet strangely unchanged, by tragedy.

A few critics were slightly underwhelmed by “Manchester,” either because it feels more familiar than Lonergan’s previous films or because it because it slightly overstays its welcome. (Lonergan, not always the cheeriest of souls, opened his post-screening Q&A by allowing the film “needs work.”) But even those reservations don’t keep it from being one of the few movies nearly all of Sundance agrees on, and stoking huge interest for its as-yet-unscheduled future release.

Reviews of “Manchester by the Sea”

Justin Chang, Variety

The persistence of grief and the hope of redemption are themes as timeless as dramaturgy itself, but rarely do they summon forth the kind of extraordinary swirl of love, anger, tenderness and brittle humor that is “Manchester by the Sea,” Kenneth Lonergan’s beautifully textured, richly enveloping drama about how a death in the family forces a small-town New Englander to confront a past tragedy anew. That rather diagrammatic description does little justice to Lonergan’s ever-incisive ear for the rhythms of human conversation, as he orchestrates an unruly suite of alternately sympathetic and hectoring voices — all of which stand in furious contrast to Casey Affleck’s bone-deep performance as a man whom loss has all but petrified into silence. Giving flesh and blood to the idea that life goes on even when it no longer seems worth living, “Manchester” may be too sprawling a vision for all arthouse tastes, but Lonergan’s many champions are scarcely the only viewers who will be stirred by this superbly grounded and acted third effort.

Bilge Ebiri, Vulture

While “Manchester” may proceed like a dirge, it’s also filled with surprising little reminders that life doesn’t, and can’t, stop. It could be something as simple as a teenager’s phone vibrating during a memorial service, or a casual conversation about “Star Trek” mere hours after a loved one’s sudden passing, or band practice that doesn’t stop for a death in the family, or even a malfunctioning stretcher during a moment of abject tragedy. It’s this combination – those unexpected minor jolts of life amid the major jolts of grief, along with the director’s visual poetry – that keeps “Manchester by the Sea” from becoming just another sad story. Its world is cruel and chaotic, but it unfolds with purpose and grace.

A.A. Dowd, A.V. Club

There’s really too much to unpack here in one sitting; I could spend an additional several hundred words — and probably will, when the film opens in theaters — on how Lonergan has grown as a visual storyteller (this is his most handsome and controlled film), on the poetic rhythm of the editing, and on a single shattering scene with Michelle Williams, who plays Lee’s estranged ex-wife. For now, about all I can do is express awe at the way “Manchester by the Sea” operates in a near-constant state of heightened emotion, while still sidestepping the obvious sentimental choices at every turn. (Notably, Lonergan films the scene where Lee interrupts a hockey practice to break the bad news to Patrick from the distant perspective of the teen’s teammates.) This is a big, heartbreaking American movie, and it wrecked me like nothing I’ve seen in a very long while. It’s the reason I come to film festivals.

Vadim Rizov, Filmmaker

“Manchester” overflows with ripe dialogue, developed characters, and a toughmindedness that resists the all-American bromide that with a little emotional elbow grease, anyone can transcend their past and get on with it. Lonergan is, indeed, a writer/playwright, but he understands how film can compact trajectories: there’s at least one scene that’s just two lines exchanged between uncle and nephew. That’s a whole shot that needs to be both there and exactly as short as it is, and it’s not a minor moment: it’s the kind of thing you can only do with moving images. This is a great film, but assuredly one to write about more later — this’ll stand for now.

Lindsey Bahr, Associated Press

There is no easy way to sum up what the film is about. Part of its impact is how Lonergan allows the story to reveal itself to the audience as he elegantly weaves together past and present, building tension to a devastating crescendo midway through. To even describe who the other actors play would be too much, but, suffice it to say that both Michelle Williams and Gretchen Mol are pivotal. And while it might be a drama to its core, it is neither dreary nor self-indulgent. It’s also packed with wit and humor as well.

Joshua Rothkopf, Time Out New York

To say Lonergan has evolved further with his third feature would be an understatement: He toggles between his new plot’s years with the relaxed mastery of “Boyhood’s” Richard Linklater. Plus, he’s finally got a complex central performance that anchors his ambitions to cinema’s all-time great brooders — to Brando, Pacino and the Heath Ledger of “Brokeback Mountain.” It comes from Casey Affleck, whom you already knew was better than Ben (no extra credit there), but whose high, keening voice and fragility never suggested such ferocity.

Richard Lawson, Vanity Fair

“Manchester by the Sea” is a familiar story — we’ve seen many kid-saves-man movies before. But Lonergan largely avoids cliche and overstatement, striking terse, elegiac chords as his characters shamble along, bickering and negotiating and holding themselves together as best as they can. As Lee, Affleck is tight-lipped and weary, a gnarl of swallowed hurt who occasionally lashes out in fits of aimless violence. It’s a striking performance, one already earning gold-tinged buzz. He’s equally matched by Hedges, who plays one of the more credible screen teens in recent memory. Patrick is a kid of stubbornness and good humor; callow as he may be, he’s possessed of the maturity and prickly wit of a young person who’s had to adapt to difficult circumstances beyond his years. Hedges and Affleck get the bulk of the focus, and they do natural, funny, touching work together. But it’s a shattering scene between Affleck and Williams that gives the film its biggest emotional wallop. As viscerally heartbreaking as the scene is, though, Lonergan maintains the elegant, insightful restraint that is a hallmark of his filmmaking.

Fionnuala Halligan, Screen Daily

This is a film about life and pain in which there are no pat answers. As the resolutely working-class characters struggle through their circumstances – young Patrick only wants to carry on as before, while Lee needs to escape – there’s a sense they’re simply doing their best. Lonergan the scriptwriter has a real ear for dialogue and rhythm, and it’s easy to enter their world. He shrugs off obvious resolutions in favor of messy, hurtful, reality.

Noel Murray, the Playlist

At times, “Manchester by the Sea” is shaggy to a fault. There’s probably a good half-hour’s worth of scenes that are arguably superfluous, neither advancing the story nor delivering pertinent information. As was the case with “Margaret” Lonergan sometimes seems to have trouble cutting out material that’s well-written and well-acted, but inessential. But also, as with “Margaret,” odds are that no two viewers would agree on what should go, because so many of those “pointless” scenes are also among the most poignant, or the funniest.

Eric Kohn, Indiewire

Expectations of a sweeping accomplishment work against this form of low key storytelling. When the usual emotions surrounding fear and resentment bubble up, they reveal nothing new, and the tension dissipates in the third act. Lonergan’s predilection toward understatement underserves the big picture. Nevertheless, “Manchester” represents a formula transformed into layers of pathos rather than overbearing histrionics. If there’s a commercial demand for this type of narrative — and Amazon’s lucrative deal suggests as much — “Manchester” stands out for doing an old routine just right. It’s not the next best thing, but it does justice to a familiar playbook.

Josh Dickey, Mashable

Every character in “Manchester by the Sea” — and there are are many — is seasoned to satisfaction. We come to know the Chandler family, and even a few families around them, intimately. The 2 hour, 15-minute runtime feels like days, not in a checking-your-watch sort of way, but in that so very many rich layers have been so carefully laid that when it’s over, you might just wonder what day it is.

Brian Tallerico, RogerEbert.com

Kenneth Lonergan’s script for “Manchester by the Sea” is a masterpiece of delicate, nuanced, lived-in scenes. It contains moments and diversions that might seem like filler to other filmmakers but that Lonergan uses to ground these people, both in a setting that never feels like artifice and an emotional reality that resonates. We spend a lot of time getting to know Patrick, meeting his girlfriends (yes, he has two), seeing him in band practice, and really just watching him interact with an uncle he’s clearly always loved but who he knows may not have the skill set or emotional ability to take care of him. Interestingly, teenage Patrick has a much more well-rounded life than Lee does back in Boston and so the implication that he may have to move with his uncle upsets him greatly. But the fact is that Lee emotionally, and almost physically, can’t live in Manchester. There are too many ghosts.

Mike Sampson, ScreenCrush

Lonergan has once again proved himself to be one of Hollywood’s best writers of dialogue. Some scripts sound exactly like movie scripts; you can almost see the words on the page as they’re being delivered. But Manchester is so successful, in part, because the dialogue here feels so real. Characters mumble and talk over each other, there’s no exposition and the film never feels the need to overexplain, letting plot points linger in the air for audiences to ponder. As a director, Lonergan knows exactly how to coax the best performances from his entire cast.

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