Returning to the Sundance Film Festival 16 years after his acclaimed debut “You Can Count On Me,” Saturday afternoon’s world premiere of “Manchester By the Sea” proved you can count on Kenneth Lonergan to deliver the goods in Park City.
Lonergan’s family drama — by turns heartbreaking and heartwarming — debuted to rapturous response at the Eccles, and could inject life into what has been a dreary sales market thus far. However, buyers have shown patience at Sundance the last few years, with major acquisitions arriving after the festival’s first weekend.
Set in the blue-collar Massachusetts coastal city of Manchester-by-the-Sea, the film stars Casey Affleck as Lee Chandler, a broken man who is drafted to be his nephew Patrick’s legal guardian when his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) dies with his affairs in order.
The central conflict involves whether Lee will move to Manchester-by-the-Sea to care for Patrick, or take the boy back to the city and return to his modest life as a handyman. For his part, the boy is estranged from his alcoholic mother (Gretchen Mol) and doesn’t want to leave behind his school, sports teams or two girlfriends, not to mention his father’s beloved boat.
Lee has also suffered the worst tragedy imaginable, so his brother’s passing strangely offers him a second chance at being a parent, whether that’s something he’s ready for or not.
Affleck, Hedges and Chandler are surrounded by a strong supporting cast — most notably Michelle Williams as Lee’s ex-wife and C.J. Wilson as Joe’s best friend.
With the film drawing comparisons to Todd Field‘s “In the Bedroom,” some have speculated that “Manchester” could be a contender in next year’s awards race, though nothing is ever a certainty when it comes to the Academy these days.
Based on strong reviews and word of mouth, the film is commercial enough that it could certainly find an arthouse audience in the U.S., though its overseas prospects are limited, as Affleck isn’t nearly as big of a draw as its initial star, Matt Damon.
Scheduling issues forced Damon to bow out of “Manchester by the Sea,” though that proved to be serendipitous, as Affleck is excellent in a low-key performance that might not have been as believable had it been given by the bigger star. It’s difficult to picture Damon in the complex, largely internal role.
Damon remained on board to produce the film with Chris Moore and Kevin Walsh and revealed at the Q&A that he cried while reading drafts of the script and watching different cuts of “Manchester” as it took shape in the editing room.
Lonergan has always been a gifted writer, but his direction of “Manchester” may be his best effort behind the camera, even though the film could use a trim at 135 minutes, due to some minor pacing issues. It still manages to pack an emotional wallop, and its wonderful sense of humor keeps it from becoming heavy-handed.
Despite the fact that he’s a Sundance veteran, Lonergan wasn’t above a little pre-premiere anxiety, telling the crowd “I’m a little nervous because it’s a huge theater and I’m a small person.” Trust us, he has nothing to worry about.