A handyman who gets drunk on his own, picking up fights with the other pub-goers in Boston, while he doesn’t deal with the customers that he speaks up to without batting an eyelid, Lee Chandler is just another person lost in a big city. He’s living in a tiny room and picks up odd jobs to make a living. But what we see is only an aftermath of what happened years ago – and the person he’s once been is exposed when he needs to travel back to a little seaside town Manchester after his brother suffers a cardiac arrest.
The place he’s once lived in with his family gives him a punch in the gut once more – and he’s forced to stay to take care of his sibling’s funeral. Unexpectedly, his brother’s will puts his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) under his custody – something that he finds hard to believe and something that reignites the pain of his personal tragedy. The big comeback, people’s stares and reunion with his ex-wife don’t help either – and it’s time for Lee to piece his life together.
Manchester by the Sea takes up a topic of a bereavement struggle. We’ve had a handful of films at the end of this year which tried to deal with this theme more or less successfully, but this movie sketches a complex character who became cold and emotionless due to the tragedy that shattered his life and took away the most important people in his life. The director Kenneth Lonergan offers us discreet hints, but the story of a small-town catastrophe that turned the protagonist’s life around is later clearly explained in a mind-blowing, layered “flashback in a flashback” cut. And this moment gives us a chance to see through the stone-cold, and sometimes unpardonable persona of the main character.
Lee, played by Casey Affleck, is not the most likeable person. He’s grim and grumpy, and being sociable with anyone is totally out of question for him. He refuses to politely interact with anybody and finds it hard to small-talk: when Patrick asks him to entertain the mother of his girlfriend so that they can finally have some privacy, the woman runs upstairs after she finds the conversation (or her monologue filled with “it’s fine” interjections from Lee) painful on a mental level. The main character is also aggressive and stubborn, and very often refuses to express any emotion initially. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t care, however: he takes his nephew into consideration and wants the best for him, even if he finds it difficult to cut his past off and move on. The most prominent question of the film is whether the troubled hero will find his way to recovery and shoo the ghosts of the past away.
The plot is also built on a complex net of relationships in a small town. It’s one of these places where everybody knows everybody, and the big stories, such as Lee’s, stay in the memories of the residents forever. Going unnoticed in the city, he reunites with his friends and remaining family here. There’s his ex-wife that reaches out to him to try and make amends, and his best mate that cares for him more than he cares for himself.
There is also, of course, Lee’s bond with Patrick. Here, our hero doesn’t display affection either, but he’s there for his nephew when he needs him – like in a memorable and somewhat darkly funny scene of a panic attack when the teenager suffers deep anxiety after seeing raw chicken in the freezer. And there’s a lot of interesting interaction between the boy and his uncle – although it’s not a sickly sweet kind of love, it’s the (im)patient and (mis)understanding one, a swing of a mood at a time. They exchange sarcastic remarks like pros and argue a lot, but at the end of the day, they both appreciate each other’s company and cure the grief together. It’s heartening to watch them, and many funny situations they face together lift up the unbearable psychological weight of this drama, too.
This multifaceted storytelling really allows Casey Affleck to create his character and show a picture of the man who’s overwhelmed with guilt and sorrow. And it allows other characters to find their own purpose in the story, too: Lucas Hedges as Patrick shines as the rebellious teenager in a punk band who keeps up with two girlfriends, and Michelle Williams serves us a heartbreak (and an unexpected emotion outburst from the main character, too) with her woeful pledge that tops Lee’s unwrapped story.
Awarded during the Golden Globes, nominated for the BAFTA awards and keeping the status of a likely Oscar candidate, Manchester by the Sea explores personalities and relationships to lay out a story of character’s change. It takes the usual device of character development and turns it inside out – so that we can see the grief-stricken mind at its seams in this slow burn of a film.
Manchester by the Sea opens on Friday, 13th January 2017.