When I was taught to write it was always a somewhat circular form: you introduce something to use it later; if you introduce a character they better play a significant role later.
Kenneth Lonergan’s amazing Manchester by the Sea featuring a great Casey Affleck as Lee Chandler, sort of does that, but Lonergan uses emotions this way. The emotional wreckage in Manchester by the Sea juts out in all directions like bike spokes, but there’s little other evidence of by-the-book setup. If this were a bad movie then Lee would fall in love with, or least go on a date with Dr. Bethany (Ruibo Qian). If this were just an above-average movie then Patrick (Lucas Hedges) would end up living with, or more in touch with his estranged mother (Gretchen Mol). If this were merely a decent movie then Randi Chandler (Michelle Williams) would get far more screen time, get a scene with Patrick, and have more than an aborted conversation with Lee.
In short: not only would the setup come circularly back around, but also the love (maternal and romantic) would be more plot point to swing the story’s pendulum than what it is: emotional plot point.
But it’s not any of those things and that’s why Manchester by the Sea works. It’s a straight arrow that’s always pointing in one direction. Any seeming deviation – those listed above, for example – just fall by the wayside for Lee’s trek ahead…to what he doesn’t seem to know.
The flashbacks in here are another writing element worth noting. I think flashbacks often feel tawdry. Or they feel mechanical. I love how they’re used in here. Nothing physical really motivates them (meaning: Lee doesn’t see something that “jogs his memory”). He just remembers. And he remembers with such specificity that during the first flashback, in his brother’s lawyer’s office, it almost felt comical (you mean that, while looking out the window in this brief moment, Lee remembered all of that?). But that’s such a great point of Lonergan’s writing here. It’s classic expansion of time, and the agonizing detail of Lee’s memory (slipping on the ice, holding a grocery bag at an unnervingly unnecessary moment) is true to his inability to ever let that moment go. This flashback in particular – the center reveal of the film – is heartbreaking.
Manchester by the Sea is also surprisingly funny. An awkward silence between Lee and an attracted mother; Matthew Broderick’s really measured Christian husband (funny, sad, and eerie at once); Patrick’s high school bravado.
I think there’s one bad cut in this film. Really, for my money, one small moment that doesn’t work. It’s Lonergan’s cameo. He scolds Lee for bad parenting when Lee yells at Patrick. Lee yells back and Patrick has to break it up. All fine. But then there’s a totally strange cut back to Lonergan’s side character walking away in a wide tracking shot. Similarly to my above points, it’s seemingly indicative of this guy’s inevitable return; but dissimilarly there’s no discernible reason to go back to him other than to show that it’s the director.
I love the poster for this film only in that it’s accurate and resists the easier (star power notwithstanding) addition of Patrick. This is really a film about Lee and Randi, more so about just Lee, than it is about Lee and Patrick.