After his older brother passes away, Lee Chandler is forced to return home to care for his 16-year-old nephew. There he is compelled to deal with a tragic past that separated him from his family and the community where he was born and raised.
Pop culture loves catharsis. In film after film we’re presented with characters suffering with a burden that, in one pivotal moment, is lifted from them so they can go forward renewed. It’s a formula that makes for great drama; in real life things are rarely that simple. Wounds leave scars when they heal, and those scars don’t often fade. It’s one of the strengths of writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea – a brilliant film that isn’t exactly lacking in strong points – that it recognises the lasting damage life hands out while charting, in its own gentle, naturalistic fashion, the small movements we make as we grow used to living with those scars.
Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is a Boston janitor living a very stripped-back life. He does repair work at a string of apartments during the day (where his interactions with the residents establishes the films tone; accepting the mundanity of life while seeing the humour in it), then has a few drinks at the local bar in the evening, with maybe a near-random violent outburst hinting at some deeper issues to cap the night off. Then he gets a phone call: his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has had a heart attack. As he returns to his former home town it becomes clear that this particular loss isn’t going to shatter him – he was broken a long time ago.
Lee stays in Manchester by the Sea to reluctantly assume guardianship of his unimpressed teenage nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges), who has his own problems (including having two girlfriends on the go). Surprisingly, considering what they’re both going through, Lee and Patrick are a first-class comedy double act; the darkness might be what stands out in this film, but it makes sure to give equal time to the light. And maybe the comedy between them isn’t so surprising: their individual grief – Patrick’s recent and not unexpected, Lee’s long-term and seemingly permanent – mean neither feels the need to tip-toe around the other’s feelings. Their bluntly funny talk reveals more about how they increasingly need each other but can’t admit it, than “talking out their feelings” ever could.
"The darkness might be what stands out in this film, but it makes sure to give equal time to the light."
Lonegeran skilfully juxtaposes two timelines, the present of Lee and Patrick, and the past that led to Lee’s move to Boston, to contrast two kinds of loss. Patrick’s pain in many ways is “normal”: losing a parent is to be expected and Joe’s illness was both long-term and well known, while those around Patrick embrace him and take him into their lives. Lee’s is worse: though what happened was an accident, he was the one responsible for his loss, so unsurprisingly he blames himself for what happened. As does the community of Manchester by the Sea, who even in the present have turned their backs on him. It’s no wonder that at one point he says he “can’t beat it”; for those around him it’s an open question as to whether he should even try.
For a film built around comparisons – between Lee and Patrick’s different pains, between the darkness they’re going through individually and the humour that flows between them, even between the open ocean that Patrick sees as his future and the closed-in Boston basement apartment where Lee has ended up – it’s the performances that tie it together. Hedges is a real find, capturing perfectly a confident teen’s attitude while letting the little boy we see in the film’s opening scene peek through. Affleck speaks volumes with an expression as a man so crippled by loss it seems at times like he can barely talk. Lonegeran constantly underplays the drama – no mawkish close-ups of photos of the deceased here – and it’s his leads’ subtle yet expressive performances that let him get away with it.
Towards the end of the film, Lee runs into his ex-wife (Michelle Williams, who gives a shattering performance playing a character who lives a lifetime in just three scenes). She’s moved on with her life, and wants to help him do the same. He can’t accept her helping hand; digging out of the grave he’s in isn’t that easy. But just the fact he can tell her how it feels to be him, here and now, is progress. We all travel at different speeds, this masterful, often devastating film is saying. At least now he’s joined those around him in moving towards the light.
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