More often than not, grief is presented in movies as something to overcome, a painful thing family members join together to fight or that individuals successfully struggle to beat. But sometimes you can’t just make grief go away (nor should you, I suppose), and it’s that simple fact that drives Manchester by the Sea. It’s not a feel-good movie by any stretch, but you will most likely feel better after watching it. And not because writer/director Kenneth Lonergan manipulates you into feeling better but because he can tell a terribly moving story really well.
Casey Affleck stars as Lee Chandler, a jerk of a janitor going through his daily grind at an apartment complex in Boston. He plunges toilets, shovels snow, and puts up with (and dishes out) all kinds of aggravation daily.
When he gets a phone call that his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has died suddenly from a heart attack, Lee is forced to return to his titular hometown. What we assume is a reluctance to confront his brother’s death, though, is soon revealed to be a much bigger issue. Lee is given plenty of sideways glances when he returns, and we hear him referred to as The Lee Chandler. Eventually Lonergan lets us in on Lee’s devastating backstory, and in one quick moment our hearts get summarily yanked out of our chests.
Adding to Lee’s long list of mounting issues is the fact that he is named guardian of Joe’s teenaged son Patrick (Lucas Hedges), a kid who has an established life in town; he’s on the hockey team, fronts a band, and is juggling two girlfriends. Lee has no time or inclination to take over parenting duties, but that doesn’t prevent him from starting to form a bond with his nephew.
Manchester by the Sea, in Lonergan’s exquisite hands, takes on a distinctive Good Will Hunting vibe (Matt Damon is, in fact, a producer and was once attached to star), as the town and its people (and their wicked-good accents) take on a life of their own. Much of the film’s dialogue isn’t concerned with pushing the plot forward; simple conversations about a car’s heater or an awkward attempt at small talk serve only to present Lee’s world as a slice of life, and Lonergan (aided by cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes) beautifully shows us quick glimpses. Shots that would end up on the cutting room floor of other films (power lines zipping by overhead, quick flashbacks to Joe and young Patrick fishing) are included, giving the film an honest, true-life feel.
Affleck, largely relegated in the past to supporting work, finally has a movie to call his own, and he establishes himself instantly. It’s a brutal but unassuming performance, worthy of all the awards-season chatter it’s causing. And if he’s the front-runner for the Oscar, co-star Michelle Williams as his ex-wife Randi is even more of a shoo-in. Seriously, if Anne Hathaway can win for chewing up scenery and singing for three minutes in Les Miserables, surely Williams deserves some love for what may be the most wrenching scene in the film (much less all of 2016)—a conversation Randi has with Lee toward the end of the film. It will stick with you long after Manchester by the Sea is over.
The film itself is a masterpiece of the highest order, a life-affirming effort that is equal parts heartwarming and heartbreaking. More than anything, though, it’s a simple ode to grief and loss and coping and making do. Sometimes you can’t solve everything life throws at you, but you still have to just keep on living.