The commodification of art can easily hijack discussions of its worth, but when art lands in a marketplace, the lines tend to blur. So it comes with the territory that the enthusiasm greeting the Sundance premiere of Kenneth Lonergan’s followup to his 2011 sleeper hit “Margaret,” the sullen family drama “Manchester By the Sea,” has been accompanied by news of a lucrative deal. Amazon’s $10 million acquisition for U.S. rights to the movie suggest high hopes for the film to have broad appeal and serious awards consideration. Certainly the company will push for it. But is it worth the cash-fueled hype? That’s a trickier question.
Lonergan’s come-from-behind saga with “Margaret,” his ambitious coming-of-age tale that was embroiled in studio bickering and rescued by a passionate crusade of supportive critics, makes it easy to root for “Manchester By the Sea” to set things right. The film does offer a broader access point for Lonergan’s style. Where “Margaret” went broad and ambitious with a sprawling, operatic storyline, “Manchester” aims for more conventional territory.
Casey Affleck excels in the role of alienated handyman Lee Chandler, a gruff New Englander who returns to his small hometown after the sudden death his older brother (Kyle Chandler, seen in several flashbacks). Left to care for his 16-year-old nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges), Lee struggles to reconcile his grief-stricken present with an even darker past, which involves the tragedy that ruined his marriage to Randi (Michelle Williams) and their settled life with two children. Creeping around town in the contemporary scenes, Lee copes with judgmental stares from locals and questions his ability to escape his old reputation.
On paper, then, “Manchester” offers nothing more than a by-the-numbers look at broken families searching for new beginnings, but Lonergan knows this brand of dramaturgy better than most. With cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes turning the drab landscape into an expression of Lee’s alienated state, each wide shot complicates the mood. But it’s Lonergan’s masterfully subtle writing, littered with awkward exchanges that speak far louder than any cohesive monologue, that gives “Manchester” its humanity.
Punctuated by disarming humor, many scenes are so raw with the nuances of human behavior that they border on documentary — and yet Lonergan remains in tight control of his narrative. While Affleck’s subdued delivery gels with the filmmaker’s tone, it’s rising star Hedges who gives the movie its liveliest moments. Rocking out with his teen band and attempting to get it on with his girlfriend behind her intrusive mother’s back, Patrick epitomizes the eager spirit now drained from Lee’s existence. When Patrick considers moving in with his recovering alcoholic mother (now wedded to a devout Christian played by Matthew Broderick in a distracting cameo), Lee does his part to step in. But on some level he seems resigned to failing at his attempts at inheriting his brother’s paternal role. Patrick wants a new beginning; Lee has lost faith in such a possibility under any circumstances.
As Lonergan explores the gap between these two men, “Manchester” hardly throws any curveballs into the mix. This is ultimately a smart, grounded premise that breaks few rules. But Lonergan wrings so many nuanced exchanges out of a first-rate set of performances that the story rarely drags or rings false. This is a filmmaker who excels at the slow-and-steady approach.
While he’s been a prolific playwright, it’s remarkable that Lonergan has only made three features in 16 years, starting with 2000’s “You Can Count On Me” — which also chronicled a damaged small town family dealing with the aftermath of a tragedy. Lonergan complicates such tropes with gentle touches. In “Manchester,” Lee responds to news of his brother’s death with a dismissive “Fuck this,” then pauses long enough to consider his outburst and apologize. Such pensive beats imbue the proceedings with an authentic emotional foundation.
Similarly, Lonergan pads out the running time with minor events that speak to the bigger picture. In one of the standout bits, Patrick asks his uncle to accompany his nephew to his girlfriend’s house to distract the girl’s mother. But the cringe-worthy outcome, as Patrick refuses to say a word, hardly plays out as planned.
While it’s weak on strong female characters, “Manchester” has plenty of strong men. The gruff New Englanders populating the insular setting, who seem always on the brink of various physical altercations at the local bar, speak to the narrow set of possibilities that the town allows. Already a drifter when he returns, Lee finds that Manchester only exacerbates his frustrations with the world. While uncertain about taking on a paternal role in his nephew’s life, Lee eventually becomes the boy’s best hope for thinking beyond the limitations of his surroundings.
“Manchester By the Sea” offers few big, sweeping moments; such expectations work against its appeal. Although Lee must inevitably confront the fear and resentment he’s been suppressing for much of the picture, there are no grand revelations, and the tension dissipates in the third act. With “Manchester,” Lonergan transforms a formulaic scenario into something far more understated. 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.
Amazon will release “Manchester By the Sea” later this year.