Manchester By the Sea is a stunning, heartbreaking, restrained, bittersweet and often funny look at loss and how people deal with it. It’s a movie where the big moments are played small, and soul-bearing cries are internalized. The lives of the characters are so intoxicating in their intricacy and thin layer of black comedy that it almost makes you want to travel to the bitter cold of Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts simply to get a chance to people watch them as they pass by, getting a earful of their conversations.
Okay, maybe it won’t make you be that creepy, because although you could get a glimpse of them walking by the frigid pier that looks onto a cold sea, or merely walking down a snow-ridden street, the movie primarily exists in cars, warms homes and around dining room tables. Kenneth Lonergan’s script (who also directs) lives in everyday environments as the characters going through emotional turmoil behave as real people.
After the death of his brother (Kyle Chandler), Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) must travel back to his home town to take care of all the matters that need tending to, including the care of his 15-year-old nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). He’s been living a quiet, hidden life as a janitor in Boston after a tragic event forced him to move away from Manchester, only to have to confront it when he returns. Lee is what you would expect from your typical East Coast, Irish-Catholic resident in that all his emotions are buried very, very deep. Affleck clearly understands this kind of character as he, much like the movie, acts and lives in small actions. Whether it’s realizing his brother is dead, or seeing him on the cold morgue slab, the man almost never sheds a tear during scenes that would normally find other actors projecting snot out of their nose in hopes of nailing that “Oscar scene”.
Here, though, Affleck has mastered the art of subtlety and bottles his emotions inside until they come flowing out in a few moments, still only letting out restrained sniffles…or unwarranted beat-downs of other bar-goers. Otherwise he externalizes his inner feelings with passive glances, clenching and unclenching fists, and a vulnerable demeanor.
This is how a man who can’t confront his own emotions deals with them, but that’s tested when he starts looking after Patrick. His way of dealing with emotions is to force them down as well, but instead of wallowing he does what teens do: acts like it’s not a big deal by trying to be independent. He plays in his garage band, tries to get laid and acts like he’s handling things fine. And in a lot of ways he is. His dad has had heart problems for years so in a way he’s been preparing for the worst. So, he lives his life and wants to continue to do so without interruption, forcing Lee to acknowledge a necessary choice: stay in Manchester to raise Pat, make him come back to Boston with him, or leave him with another guardian.
Though that is the movie’s ultimate conflict, the story is really about seeing these two as they deal with the loss of their closet family member. From Affleck we get a masterclass in acting that should be met with fervorous note-taking from aspiring actors, while Hedges delivers a confident, natural breakthrough performance, and together they make a better duo than Batman and Robin (okay, just the Val Kilmer/George Clooney/Chris O’Donnell pairings). Their differences in behavior make for many engaging conversations, as well as deadpan and dark comedy. There’s a moment after Lee is leaving a will reading (and given shocking news leading to a devastating flashback), and when he meets Pat in the waiting room Pat initializes the conversation with a sarcastic, “Are we headed to the orphanage?” As well there’s a instance where the two are talking about burial issues, all while getting lost trying to find the car in the bitter cold. Lonergan’s script tackles these tough situations with refreshing honesty and humor, while his direction makes it feel as natural as seeing it happen from a park bench. There I go being a creep again.
We also see reliably great work from Michelle Williams as Lee’s ex-wife, Randi, who has moved on from their tragedy with a new man and baby. She is the emotional opposite of Lee, who wants to cry and bear her soul when he just wants to be left alone. This is because she has accepted what’s happened and is trying to move on, something Lee refuses (or is unable) to do. They’re responsible for the movie’s most gripping scene, wherein Randi needs to talk to Lee about everything, but Lee just can’t. The moment reveals everything about Lee’s journey, in the end, forcing the audience to accept this is a tragedy when some would prefer it to be a drama with a happy ending. Audiences will find the former approach is vastly more insightful and impacting.
Manchester is a movie for those who enjoy watching people with varying behaviors behave, and are smart enough to fit pieces together on their own. Lonergan knows when to cut away from moments, trusting the audience to have paid attention enough to fill in the gaps, like when a scene with Pat and his estranged mother ends short when she can’t handle the situation and leaves the room, ending the scene never to be picked up again. Those who listen and pay attention will pay witness to a stirring, funny, beautifully acted film with characters they may see themselves in and relate to. It’s sociological filmmaking at it’s finest and solidifies yet another Affleck as a force to be reckoned with. Damn those Affleck boys.