Kenneth Lonergan’s devastating Manchester by the Sea is the rare movie about the grieving process that doesn’t end with its characters overcoming a tragedy and being happy again, but rather about coping with their situation. The characters change during the picture, but their story is by no means solved by the conclusion.
With only three feature films under his belt, Lonergan has proven himself a master at capturing the way ordinary people speak, live existences that are recognizable and deal with difficult situations. His You Can Count On Me was an assured debut, while his post-9/11 drama Margaret was a bold directorial statement.
Manchester by the Sea tells the intimate story of Lee Chandler (a career best for Casey Affleck), although the film is often funny and uses deadpan humor to alleviate tension and sadness. During one scene, Lee and his nephew Patrick (a very good Lucas Hedges), sit at the dinner table. Lee has a bandage on his hand after having punched out a window and Patrick inquires about the injury. “It’s cut,” replies Lee. “Oh, for a minute there I didn’t know what happened,” Patrick shoots back.
It’s incredible that the film’s characters remember how to crack jokes at all. In flashbacks, we learn how a tragedy broke apart Lee’s marriage to his wife, Randi (the stellar Michelle Williams). Lee, who lives alone and works as a maintenance man, purposefully avoids most human contact other than occasional fights he picks at a local Boston bar.
As the picture opens, Lee’s older brother (Kyle Chandler, also excellent) has just died and Lee is surprised to find he’s been left as Patrick’s guardian. This leads to a conundrum because Patrick goes to school in the film’s small, titular town. As he likes to mention, he plays hockey for the school team, all of his friends are there and he has two girlfriends. Therefore, Lee would have to move to where Patrick lives (he’s not enthused with the idea) or Patrick would have to move in with Lee in Boston.
The film effortlessly switches back and forth between Lee going about the practical matters of arranging for his brother’s funeral and taking over father figure duties, to flashbacks that gradually show how Lee became so isolated, revealing how close he was to his brother. Although every performance in the film is great, Manchester by the Sea is not a showy film. It’ll likely get nominated for a slew of awards, but it doesn’t beg for them.
One of the elements that makes the film so powerful and raw is that it doesn’t wrap everything in a bow. There aren’t exactly happy endings for many of the characters. Rather, Lee and those in his orbit come to accept that their lives will never likely be the same again as they learn to cope with their grief.
Towards the picture’s end, a particularly cathartic albeit profoundly sad conversation takes place between Lee and his ex-wife on a street corner that is just as moving as the final conversation in Barry Jenkins’s marvelous Moonlight. Both scenes are among the year’s best in writing and acting terms.
Manchester by the Sea is an astute, haunting and powerful film about loss and the way people punish themselves for their mistakes, but it’s also about forgiveness: learning to forgive others and ourselves, and asking for forgiveness from those whom we’ve cause pain. The picture is emotionally rewarding, but does not peddle cheap sentiment, and while it could be described as melodrama, it’s never maudlin. This is one of the year’s best movies.
Watch the Manchester by the Sea trailer below: