Five years ago Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret—a passion project long tied up in post-production hell—finally saw the light of day, became one of the best films of the year, and worked to establish Lonergan as one of our most talented screenwriters. Having suffered at the mercy of uncompromising distributors (who insisted on cutting Margaret by some thirty-five minutes) and a largely indifferent public (many of whom, in their defense, never even had a chance to see the movie), Lonergan became a figure for the serious artist as martyr, a cause to be championed by a small but vocal contingent of supportive cineastes. Now the glowing reception for his new film Manchester by the Sea promises to win him widespread acclaim. He has already begun racking up critics’ awards; Oscars will likely follow. And yet one can’t help but wonder what the mainstreaming of Lonergan will mean for his work. Manchester is a film so solidly made and highly polished that it makes me long for the messiness and the riskiness of Margaret. I worry that Lonergan’s rough edges are already being leveled off—to the potential detriment of the films.
But even in its newly commercial form Lonergan’s work is still leagues ahead of most of what’s playing at the art house right now (to say nothing of the multiplex). As in Margaret, Manchester’s central character grapples with the fatal consequences of irresponsibility and the weight of guilt. When we first meet Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck, excellent), he is a beleaguered maintenance man living outside of Boston in the basement of the apartment complex where he works. Kicked off by the news that Lee’s older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has died after a years-long battle with congestive heart failure, the plot proceeds to move back and forth in time, slowly revealing a tragic backstory that informs Lee’s present reluctance to assume custody of his teenage nephew (Lucas Hedges). The prickly relationship between uncle and nephew, both of whom struggle with anger management issues on top of their grief, drives the rest of the film, the somber tone of which is leavened by the boy’s adolescent wisecracks and a generous helping of New England-flavored snark. (Michelle Williams also turns up for a few scenes, unsurprisingly great but somewhat underused in a stock blue-collar-fishwife role.)
It’s a watertight film, earnest and sentimental without being maudlin, and bolstered by a fine cast. Manchester’s deftness and maturity of craftsmanship resemble something like Alexander Payne’s The Descendents. Like that film, Manchester feels a little too slick at times, and too well groomed for awards season. (Margaret suffered from hostile studio interference; Manchester may suffer from friendly studio interference.) Even so, we’re lucky to have an Oscar front-runner this grown-up. If the mainstreaming of Lonergan means that we get more serious dramas for adults this smart, I won’t complain.