Alex’s review published on Letterboxd:
As sad a film as I've ever seen, Manchester by the Sea is another showcase for Kenneth Lonergan's remarkable ability to bring realistic emotions, characters and scenarios to the big screen. It is this realism, where everything and everyone feels so genuine and so complete, that makes the film hit so hard emotionally. Characters are up and down and all over the place, sometimes loving and good-natured, other times acting like complete dicks. Just like real people. So when potentially heartbreaking things happen, and they frequently do here, the impact is overwhelming.
It's not quite all doom and gloom; as with You Can Count on Me, Lonergan is able to extract humour out of dire situations. Lucas Hedges (in a star-making performance) as the teenager who has just lost his dad, and Casey Affleck (who will win a deserved Oscar for this) have a difficult and strained relationship under tough circumstances, but they regularly bounce off each-other perfectly to provide the film with some much needed uplifting.
Besides the two stars, the performances are universally excellent. C.J. Wilson, Kyle Chandler, Gretchen Mol, Matthew Broderick and Heather Burns all make the most of limited screen time and Michelle Williams stand out in what must have been an incredibly difficult role for her. The extraordinary scene featured on the poster used here is probably the film's hardest to get through, with no shortage of competition. In the process of her character baring her soul, Williams once again proves to be one of the preeminent actors of her generation.
Hedges is excellent; in a role with depth and complexity that far more experienced actors would've faltered under, he stands tall and is one to watch. But this is the Casey Affleck show. He has shown he is capable of complex emoting, most notably as Robert Ford, but here he shows a maturity and restraint that is amazing to behold. His Lee Chandler is a broken man, who has been dealt some pretty horrific cards. His whole being is tinged with sadness but he is never a sad-sack. He's just a guy trying to get through it all. The aforementioned scene with Williams features two actors at the absolute peak of their game. The material desperately needed a capable actor to carry it on his shoulders and Affleck does it with aplomb.
I was emotionally drained and in a not particularly good mood after watching this, but in the light of day there is no denying what an achievement it is. Not many people are capable of or willing to make the kind of films Kenneth Lonergan makes. It takes a special kind of film-maker to tackle these subjects of loss and trauma with such tenderness without ever having to force misery. True to the reality it sticks so close to, there are no real resolutions. We just know these people will continue on with their lives, doing the best they can.