Writer director Kenneth Lonergan offers a detailed, honest and well informed examination of the impact of loss and tragedy on the lives of ordinary people in this seriously well put together drama.
Manchester-by-the-Sea is a town about forty minutes north of Boston, and we see it here mostly in winter, a place of working class people who work hard, drink hard and swear hard – young and old alike.
We meet janitor Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), who early on must deal with the death of his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler), who’s succumbed to a heart attack. Joe has a teenage son Patrick (Lucas Hedges), who Lee is now assigned guardianship of. But it’s not so easy for Lee, whose own life has been deeply scarred by tragedy of his own.
Lee now lives in Boston, and returning to Manchester-by-the-Sea to attend to his brother’s funeral and his nephew’s needs means he is back in the location of his own loss. Director Lonergan gives us plenty of time to look at the town, sitting around its harbour, draped in mist and snow, and the film’s largely orchestral soundtrack..
And that’s really the nub of this story: how someone’s desire to do right by his family can be blunted by being in a place which reunites them with their own grief. That sounds utterly depressing, but I did not find it so. No one is sad all the time, as Lonergan’s film shows. Teenager Patrick struggles to know how to react to his father’s death, but he is also concerned about how to juggle his two girlfriends. Patrick’s friends console him. His ice hockey coach offers that he also lost his father at a young age. As for Lee, his previous tragedy means some in the town want to steer clear of him, but others rally around. The mother of one of Patrick’s girlfriends takes a shine to Lee. So it goes.
The story evolves by following the aftermath of Joe’s death, but also by giving us a series of flashbacks showing what happened to Lee and his wife Randi (Michelle Williams). We slowly unpeel the layers to the family story. We also see in flashback how Lee spent time with Joe when Patrick was a youngster, and how the bonds between uncle and nephew grew.
The script is written in everyday language. There are no grand speeches or insights. These are everyday people, struggling with everyday concerns. This, and the fact that a lot of care and attention to detail is taken, gives the film an extraordinary authenticity. The sequence of Lee hearing of his brother’s death and having to go to hospital shows just how many react to such trauma. They’re numb, they’re angry, they’re sad. And those around them do their best to help.
The whole cast delivers performances which ring true, and it’s hard to fault them. The story is built around Casey Affleck’s Lee, a quiet, inarticulate man who struggles (quite understandably) to connect to others, and who finds his fists as useful as words or tears to deal with his emotions. Affleck shows us a man who’s done terrible things and who now wants to do the right thing, but who is also nearly crippled by his past. We see this in a brilliant but devastating scene near the end with his former wife Randi.
This is such a rounded story where I both laughed and shed a tear. If you’ve had loss in your life this film will be familiar, confronting, but also comforting. It’s not a movie for anyone looking for an entertaining or amusing night out, but it does give an unpolished glimpse into our lives, and is all the richer for it. Recommended.