We think of the movies as a medium of action and image. So it’s kind of audacious that most of the drama is internal in Manchester by the Sea. Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan brings his playwright’s instincts to this intimate story of love, loss, and family in a close-knit fishing community on the Massachusetts coast. These rugged folks don’t articulate their feelings, but those feelings run deep, and Lonergan finds continually inventive ways to express them in this quietly moving film.
Lonergan is best known for You Can Count On Me, another look at uneasy but fierce family dynamics. The taciturn protagonist in Manchester by the Sea has no means of expressing his inner demons (not even to himself). But Lonergan tells his story through judicious use of flashbacks, and in the ways he interacts with people around him, whether fighting, swearing, or joking around. (Indeed, for a movie whose plot turns on so many tragic elements, the dialogue can be surprisingly funny.)
Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) works as a handyman and super at a small apartment building outside of Boston. He doesn’t say much beyond what the job requires, and reacts with the same apparent indifference, whether he overhears a tenant on the phone telling her girlfriend she has a crush on him, or a tenant cusses him out over a plumbing malfunction. (Although he calmly answers the latter in kind.) After work, he retires to his one room in the basement to drink beer and watch sports on TV, or goes out to a bar until he’s drunk enough to pick a fight with someone.
But when his older brother Joe dies suddenly, Lee has to return to his hometown of Manchester by the Sea, on Cape Ann. Joe (Kyle Chandler, in flashbacks) was a divorced commercial fisherman raising a son, Patrick, on his own, and Lee has to make the arrangements. Lee responds to everything with the same tight-lipped impassivity—until he hears that Joe has named him the legal guardian of 16-year-old Patrick (Lucas Hedges).
As Lee and Patrick cope, Lee’s memories play an ever more crucial role in the storytelling. In flashbacks, a very different Lee emerges, happy-go-lucky, with a posse of buddies, a feisty young wife, Randi (Michelle Williams), and kids of his own. As a boy, Patrick (Ben O’Brien) grew up with his Uncle Lee working on the boat alongside his dad; they taught him to fish and introduced him into the rituals of guy-bonding.
The story of how Lee got stuck in his own haunted purgatory is revealed in small, heartbreaking increments, in counterpoint to the larger story of Lee and Patrick learning to navigate their strange new situation. Lee is determined to only stay in town for the winter, until Patrick’s school year ends, then relocate them both back to Boston. Patrick digs in his heels—he’s on the hockey team, he’s in a band, and he has two girlfriends he doesn’t want to leave. “You’re a janitor,” he tells Uncle Lee, “what the hell do you care where you live?”
Good point. But despite not being remotely parental, and barely equipped to take care of himself, let alone Patrick, Lee fears memory-haunted Manchester above all things. Although it’s clear that Joe is still looking out for him from beyond the grave, and Randi even resurfaces briefly in his life to offer a kind of redemption, the crux of the drama is whether or not Lee can learn to accept the past and move on.
This is a life-sized story about recognizably human characters whose dilemmas stay with us. Affleck manages to toe the fine line between surly and sympathetic; he maintains our interest, offering up shading in the smallest of gestures. His scenes with Hedges provide the backbone of the story, as uncle and nephew test the boundaries of their new reality. Williams provides fire and grace in her few scenes.
The storyline may be unresolved (or resolved in a way that might disappoint some viewers), but that’s just another way that this heartfelt, compassionate movie echoes real life.
MANCHESTER BY THE SEA
***1/2 (out of four)
With Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, Lucas Hedges. Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan. A Roadside Attractions release. Rated R. 137 minutes.