Despite Boston's status as a major city in the United States, it gets far less exposure on the large or small screen than you might expect. But what you can generally count on is that when a film gets made there, it'll feel a lot more specific than anything set in New York or Los Angeles. Sure, you'll have filmmakers like Martin Scorsese or Sidney Lumet who make very New York-centric stories, or a guy like Michael Mann, who really knows how to shoot Los Angeles, but the vast majority of films set in those cities might as well be set in Townsville from the Powerpuff Girls.
In the last ten years, however, there has been a resurgence of films set in or around the Boston area, starting with the huge popularity of the Oscar-winning The Departed, directed by none other than Scorsese himself. We've since had the emergence of Ben Affleck-as-director with Gone Baby Gone and The Town, two films that are inextricably tied to the working-class communities that surround Bean Town. Last year's terrific Spotlight won Best Picture, overshadowing the mediocre yet also Boston-set Black Mass. Prepare yourself for another New England Academy Award-winner, because Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester by the Sea is looking like the frontrunner.
This isn't to say that Manchester is Oscar bait. Hell, it's not even that much of a Boston movie, technically, given Manchester-by-the-Sea's relative distance from the city. But the brusque charm of Boston is suffused throughout Lonergan's picture, which he wrote and directed. Few films this year have done this well to establish a sense of place, immersing you in the film's overcast, often bleak world, while also remembering that life is often just as funny as it is sad. It helps that the lead role is filled by Casey Affleck, a denizen of the Boston metropolitan area who has built his career around playing the sort of brittle, haunted man we see in this film. This is his best, most challenging role he's tackled to date, and will likely win him a little golden man, too.
Lee Chandler (Affleck) is a handyman who works as a building super to a few apartment buildings in Quincy. He lives alone, spending his days fixing plumbing and dealing with alternatively appreciative and rude residents, after which he hits the bar, where he fends off advances from women and gets into fights, seemingly at random. He finds out his brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), has died and that Joe has placed him in charge of most of his financials and estate, including Joe's teenage son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges, Moonrise Kingdom). We learn via flashbacks about a tragedy that befell Lee and his ex-wife, Randi (Michelle Williams), one that split them apart and led to Lee's perma-solitude.
Lee's in no financial or emotional state to be taking care of his nephew, particularly when Joe was such a pillar of stability in the family's life (and that is why you cast Kyle Chandler). In one of the film's funnier ongoing jokes, Lee tries to pass off Patrick to more responsible adults who are better-suited to taking care of the boy, not because he doesn't love Patrick--their relationship is thorny but affectionate--but because Lee knows he can't raise him the way he should be. We spend approximately 135 minutes with these characters, learning about their lives and the past trauma that has led them to become the contentious individuals they are today.
Manchester by the Sea is a harmonious miracle between casting and writing, first and foremost. There is a fine line between typecasting and finding just the right part for the right actor, and this film goes the latter route. Affleck is devastatingly good as Lee, holding the entire film on his shoulders and in nearly every frame. He has to play the entire gamut of emotions and make some pretty awful mistakes in his life, all the while convincing us to keep watching him as he tries to pick up the pieces. Hedges is a revelation, an authentically acerbic young man who, though intelligent, has no plans to go to college. He knows his place in the world and is happy there (a key subplot involves the push-pull between Lee wanting to uproot Patrick from his at home). Williams is in the film for only a few scenes, but she makes every moment count, as she always does. I can't spoil her best work, but suffice it to say that a less talented actress would have made the scene mawkish and showy, but Williams reels it in at exactly the right moments.
There are many other characters in this movie, most of whom only get a moment or two to show who they are. But Lonergan's script is so effective at concisely expressing these people's personalities, and fitting them in with the rest of the film's milieu, that you know who they are almost instantaneously. The dialogue is startlingly well written while never feeling over written, a criticism that has been leveled at Lonergan in the past. Most of the people onscreen dwell in the lower-middle class, and they talk like it. But they're also funny, complex individuals who have strong opinions (like a lot of New Englanders I know). Character actor C.J. Wilson has an integral role as Joe's best friend, George, as do Kara Hayward and Anna Baryshnikov as two of Patrick's girlfriends who don't know the other exists.
In addition to nailing the location details, what makes Manchester by the Sea succeed as cinema and not just a piece of filmed drama is the editing. We gather bits of information about the major characters' backstories in dribs and drabs, frequently while Lee's memory free-associates during a crucial moment in the present. The film will dip suddenly and without fanfare into the past and jump back into the future, cementing the idea that none of us can simply move on. It can be a bit disorienting at first as it is not often visually clear when we are at a given point during the film. I find this to be a strength of the story, because it shows that Lonergan trusts his audience to figure out things for themselves, in addition to showcasing the filmmaker's skill at characterization: you can figure out at what point we are in Lee's life based on his demeanor.
As a director, Lonergan is a great playwright. He prefers medium shots and a stationary camera, allowing scenes to play out in large chunks rather than chopping them up with unnecessary camera setups. This lets actors stay in the moment and to avoid the subtle discomfort you get from watching a Hollywood picture, which tends to be cobbled together from many different takes. Lonergan's approach is understated but appropriate: the subject matter is so intense as to make additional editorializing unnecessary. But it's also the kind of method that makes a director like, say, Tom McCarthy, lose awards to an aggressive stylist like Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu.
I bring up the Oscars so much when talking about Manchester by the Sea because I really want you to see it. Its story is low-concept, lacking the sort of narrative hook like Moonlight or genre appeal like Arrival may have. At the end of this film's runtime, which could have kept on going as far as I was concerned, you will feel like you've truly experienced life in the characters' shoes. That's not something you can say for most works of fiction, let alone movies.