Manchester by the Sea (2016)
Dir. Kenneth Lonergan; Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler
[4 / 4 stars]
Kenneth Lonergan’s gift is his ability to portray the nuances and difficulties of human relationships, and this talent shines through wonderfully in Manchester by the Sea (2016). No character is entirely good or bad or anything else. The characters are intricate and unsure, just as real people are. Manchester by the Sea is depressing, occasionally hilarious, awkward, and poignant, but above all else, it is relatable and true.
Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is a handyman living in Quincy, Massachusetts when his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) dies of a heart attack. Lee is left the reluctant guardian to Joe’s son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges) and must return to Manchester by the Sea, a small town that brings back awful memories of his life there in years past. Lonergan introduces us to Lee’s past gradually through multiple flashbacks. He used to be happily married to Randi (Michelle Williams) and the father of three young children, but now he is alone. We slowly piece together his backstory, and it is infinitely worse than anything we could have imagined.
In the present, Lee is back in Manchester and is the guardian of a prickly, sarcastic sixteen-year-old. Patrick wants to remain in his hometown, where he can practice with his band and get laid by his two girlfriends. Lee struggles to deal with the memories he has of Manchester and wants to return to Quincy. They make an awkward pair. There are flashbacks of them happily fishing together with Joe when Patrick was a kid, but now they are distant. Neither of them knows how to deal with this situation. For instance, when a doctor at the hospital informs Lee that the next step is to contact a funeral home, Lee pauses for a moment then honestly says, “I don’t know the name of one.” They stumble through the whole process, trying to deal with their grief and plan for Patrick’s guardianship and future. But the film does not follow the traditional healing process that one might expect; unlike Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting (1997), it does not culminate in a beautiful moment of self-awareness.
One of my favorite scenes of the film is when Lee returns home bloodied after a bar fight, one of many in the film. Patrick positions himself in the middle of the kitchen, and in the middle of the frame. Arms folded, he carefully watches Lee shuffle around the room, put down his keys, take off his coat, and head upstairs to bed. We wait for Patrick to ask what happened, but he doesn’t. Both he and Lee are absolutely silent, and the scene passes quietly. Lonergan’s choice to film the scene this way showcases the nuances of Lee and Patrick’s relationship. Patrick is clearly worried about Lee, but neither addresses the elephant in the room. They are distant but make no effort to connect, and the silence is so loud that it seems to echo.
Stellar performances by Affleck and Hedges further strengthen the film. Affleck’s Lee is stoic and cold, but beneath his stony façade, something is slowly and permanently crumbling to pieces. Lee does his best to fill the role of Patrick’s guardian, but he just doesn’t have it. When the mother of one of Patrick’s girlfriends invites Lee over for dinner, he thinks about it for much too long. He responds politely but slowly and carefully, as if he isn’t quite sure what to say. He comes off as cold or ungrateful. When Patrick asks permission for his girlfriend to stay the night, Lee responds, with genuine surprise, “Why are you asking me?” Affleck communicates Lee’s inner turmoil so well that his actions rarely surprised me; I could feel the emotion build up over time. For instance, a single quick shot of two men sitting across the bar from Lee tells us that he is going to punch them. Part of this is Lonergan’s directing, but Affleck truly brings it all together.
Patrick is a typical teenager in many ways, but Hedges’ performance lends him an air of irascibility and vulnerability. At first, he deals with his dad’s death with a sort of impatience, as if it is an inconvenience. When he is brought to see his dad’s body, he walks two steps into the room, glances at the corpse, and says “Yeah, okay, thank you” and walks out before the door is even closed. He knows how to push all of Lee’s buttons and does so often. Yet, despite his snide remarks and cockiness, he’s also a teenager whose dad has just died, and Hedges conveys Patrick’s emotions honestly and fully.
In addition to strong performances by these skilled actors, the local color of the film is superb. As anyone who has ever lived near Boston will appreciate, the twangy Boston accents are excellent (I was especially impressed with Hedges, who is from Brooklyn), all of the filming took place in Massachusetts, and the characters mirror actual people. With work boots, scruffy beards, and layers of flannel shirts, the people on screen seem authentically Massachusetts. It may seem trivial, but this rich New England flavor makes the film even more real for me.
At first, I left Manchester by the Sea thinking, “That’s it?” because nothing really changes in its course. The best comparison that I can make when discussing it is to Lonergan’s earlier film You Can Count on Me (2000), which features a similarly slow plot. But I realized that being slow and quiet and heartbreaking is part of what makes Manchester by the Sea a masterpiece. Full of beautiful little moments like the scene described above, Manchester by the Sea packs an emotional punch that somehow makes simply watching life happen so worth it. After spending 2 hours and 25 minutes of my life with these characters… it ended. I walked out of the theatre, and life continued. And so it goes.