Manchester by the Sea (2016)
Written and Directed by Kenneth Lonergan
Grief is a feeling that everyone faces differently. There is no guidebook for how one should feel when they lose someone important to them. It is those subtle nuances of how a person copes with death that are explored in the film Manchester by the Sea. Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, he creates a film that shows the realities of dealing with grief and heartbreak, from the decisions one faces when laying someone to rest to the pervasive memories of the past with that person. Life is never easy and we rarely know when life is throwing us a curveball or a perfect set of aces, these matters are out of our hands as human beings, but it is how we deal with what life hands us that shapes us as people. Lonergan explores these nuances of life and death and masterfully shapes them, paired with the tremendous acting performances in this film, it is guaranteed to be an Oscar contender.
Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is a lowly, quiet janitor living in Boston, his life is simple and monotonous, yet he doesn’t seem hampered by it at all. When his older brother passes away, Joe (Kyle Chandler) he rushes back to his hometown of Manchester, where he soon finds out that his brother has granted him to be the sole guardian of his teenage son Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Lee is dumbfounded, confused, and doesn’t really understand why he was left to oversee him. Patrick’s mother Elise (Gretchen Mol) is nowhere to be found and Lee is all Patrick has left as a parental figure.
Throughout the film, we are given flashback into their lives together as brothers, and it is clear that Lee and Patrick had a strong bond. Joe would take them out on his fishing trawler and the three of them would head out into the sea, where they would catch fish, talk about life, and laugh together. Through these memories, we can gather that Lee was not only close to his brother, but had a cohesive, almost brother-like bond with his nephew. Joe leaves the boat to his son, and he is adamant besides the motor not working that he keeps the boat running, in a way, it is his way of reconnecting with his father and he is afraid to lose it. Lee wants to get rid of it, but never fully can act on it, because his most distinct memories were shaped on his brother’s boat.
Not only must Lee face raising a teenage boy, of which he knows nothing about doing, he allows him to have girls over and doesn’t provide many restrictions, but he must also deal with the fact that his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams) also lives in that town. From his flashbacks, we see that they had a loving life together, filled with some disarray, but nothing out of the ordinary and in the present time that no longer exists. He can barely look at her and doesn’t know what to say around her. With all the misfortunes that Lee has faced, the town of Manchester brings him many bad memories and constant reminders of the life he used to lead.
Affleck carried the film from beginning to end, and delivered a performance like no other he has given before. It was subtle, yet filled with such intensity, that one could feel every ounce of his depth without him saying anything. The unknowing of what life had in store for him could be read on his face. Lee appears broken and detached from all that is and has been his life. Affleck seemed to understand that and took all those distinct emotions and placed them into his character. I am sure that he will garner awards and accolades for his performance, this could be the one that sets him apart from other contenders.
Newcomer Hedges was astonishing as Patrick, not only do we feel moments of sadness for him, but we also get a sense of annoyance as he is just a teenage boy doing teenager-like things. He doesn’t completely grasp everything that is going on around him and we rarely see him break down and shrill for his father, instead we see that he is just trying to get on with his life. Hedges holds his own against Affleck and at times stole many of the scenes. The two played off each other perfectly and it worked.
The film not only makes you feel moments of sadness and sorrow, but I found myself laughing through a lot of it. As a viewer, I felt like I was on a rollercoaster of emotions, crying one minute and wiping away my tears and laughing the next. There are so few films, that can pull such emotions out of the viewer. Life isn’t always sad, nor is it always funny, but Lonergan is able to weave the dynamics of both and create a film that is thought-provoking and unique. I have my own inner meter of how I know a film is good in my eyes, and it is when days go by and I cannot stop thinking about it, and that’s how I felt with this film. The director along with the entire ensemble cast make this movie work and it is one that should not be missed.