Cast: Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Lucas Hedges, Gretchen Mol, Kyle Chandler
Director: Kenneth Lonergan
Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
On the surface, writer-director Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester by the Sea is a film about the grieving process; both in terms of losing a loved one as well as mourning a sense of normalcy which can never be regained. It's also a picture about the need for community and communication, with grief acting as a window into this prism rather than as the conduit. The characters populating the New England coastal town where most of the film is set are all damaged and struggling to either withdraw or open up. In a sense, communication is overly plentiful or non-existent, with Casey Affleck's Boston handy-man, Lee Chandler, finding himself going through the motions of daily life without much in the way of meaningful interactions.
Lonergan's 2000 debut You Can Count on Me and 2011's long-delayed and disastrously marketed Margaret were both personal stories tied to geographical specificity and the messiness of language. Working as a playwright probably has something to do with it, but Lonergan is one of the few filmmakers working right now who is able to capture the cadence and feeling of ordinary conversation while still maintaining a theatrical archness. Here, he's able to capture both the big themes as well as intimate ones, creating a domestic drama which shies away from sentimentality even as it uses tragedy as a plot device. When we first find Lee, he's repairing clogged toilets and random leaks for tenants while having to endure their incessant small talk and complaints, and it isn't until the death of his older brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), that's he's forced to return to a place where most bridges have been burned. Lee's inability to communicate and embrace this fractured community is exacerbated once he realizes that he is to become the legal guardian of his deceased brother's son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges).
From this potentially mawkish premise, Lonergan draws out a story teeming with lived-in authenticity and classical literary tropes by focusing on the mundane aspects of the grieving process. Lee and Patrick are thrown together, but neither seem to be responding in a normative manner; with the former attending to the pragmatic concerns of meeting with lawyers and funeral directors, while the latter spends time goofing off with his friends and juggling two girlfriends. There's disdain and sarcasm bubbling under the surface of Lee and Patrick's relationship, but this is often masking the inherent psychic damage neither of them can fully open up about. Adding to the film's complex handling of universal themes is Lonergan's use of slipstream flashbacks, which come and go without any obvious aesthetic signifiers. Instead of triggered memories introduced by slow dissolves or sepia-toned lighting, Manchester by the Sea uses time as a non-linear force haunting these characters all at once; with grief, sadness, joy, and detachment being ever-present. As the film moves on at it's own unhurried pace, Lee must face each social interaction with the knowledge that he cannot give people what they want or expect. Like a soul trapped in purgatory, he sees each face from his past as a reminder that he'll never escape his own private hell.
Despite it's subtle power as a study in communication and community, Manchester by the Sea does contain its fair share of scenes which don't quite work. A prolonged sequence involving Lee sitting silently with the mother of one of Patrick's girlfriends while the teens attempt to have sex upstairs feels a bit too knowingly cute for its own good, while a family dinner featuring a bizarre Matthew Broderick cameo as an ultra-conservative father figure feels like something out of a sitcom. Mostly, though, the film is a staggering portrait of ordinary people doing their best to cope under extraordinary circumstances. Affleck underplays beautifully as a man shell-shocked by past mistakes; conveying subtle emotions behind a stoic facade, while Hedges is equally game in a role which could have been annoyingly twee, playing his scenes with a mixture of dry wit and intense emotion. Meanwhile, Michelle Williams is on hand as Lee's ex-wife Randi, delivering a powerhouse performance with only a few scenes. Her tearful, awkward confessional as Lee stammers under his breath is obviously the film's dramatic gut-punch, but she's just as effective in smaller flashback moments, commanding the screen with her no-nonsense attitude.
Perhaps the most startling thing about Manchester by the Sea is that it finds humor in the most unexpected places. Taken at face value, the film should be a grim and unsettling experience, and while it never devolves into cheap sentimentality or forced laughs at the expense of psychological realism, there is a sense that Lonergan is distilling the messiness of life through the ringer of absurdity. Ultimately, the film concludes not with a therapy session or even an abject descent into despair, but rather, with the haunted visage of one man's face--weathered and swollen from drunken bar fights--managing a slight smile.