I've been disappointed to see some people describe Manchester by the Sea as bleak and tough to watch. Mostly because if I were trying to decide whether to see a two hour-plus movie, and every promotional still from it was of Casey Affleck and Kyle Chandler looking grim in sweatshirts against gray skies, and also I heard it was bleak, I would run in the other direction.
But for me, it was the opposite of a slog. It deals with devastating events and lasting emotional damage, but I laughed out loud many times while watching. Several scenes follow characters through mundane interactions and tasks, but they somehow remain lively and captivating. At the end of it, I felt like I'd spent a lifetime with the characters, and at the same time could have kept watching for another two hours.
That ability to roll along with the story even as it depicts shattering loss and pain stems from the movie's deep sense of naturalism. Within the sadness, there are a lot more vaguely absurd inconveniences and a lot less aimless brooding than you might expect. Henry's mom, after seeing it, echoed a reaction I'd had, too, which is that it makes you realize just how formulaic and one-note most movies are. At face value, Manchester by the Sea centers on a topic that's way too familiar (white guys with Massachusetts accents), but its natural rhythms and avoidance of easy answers (plus a lovable teen boy) make it immersive and revelatory.
But it's difficult to wholeheartedly recommend it, because its star is a man who has gone to court for sexually harassing women. I'd like to think I can still praise the movie based on Kenneth Lonergan's writing and direction and that lovable teen (played by Lucas Hedges). I'd like to recommend it even if I don't want Casey Affleck to be honored for his performance. But maybe I'm only saying that because I liked the movie; maybe it's impossible to champion it without championing Affleck. Anyway, I want to be able to say that it is great and you should go see it.