Manchester by the Sea is a sensitive character study that feels profoundly human and finds an enviable balance between drama and humor

Manchester by the Sea

Manchester by the Sea (2016)

Writ­ten and di­rect­ed by Ken­neth Lon­er­gan. Star­ring Casey Af­fleck, Lu­cas Hedges, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chan­dler, Gretchen Mol, Ben O’Brien, C.J. Wil­son, Tate Dono­van, Kara Hay­ward, Anna Barysh­nikov, Heather Burns, Er­i­ca Mc­Der­mott, Matthew Brod­er­ick, Os­car Wahlberg and Stephen Henderson.

Mem­o­ries can be too hard a thing to bear. Some­times they are so painful that they leave us pow­er­less, un­able to find ways to deal with them, and so we be­lieve our only al­ter­na­tive is to run away. For Lee Chan­dler (Casey Af­fleck), noth­ing could be worse than to re­turn to his home­town of Man­ches­ter-by-the-Sea, Mass­a­chu­setts. Af­ter years of liv­ing and work­ing as a jan­i­tor in the south­ern sub­urbs of Boston, Lee is forced to come back when his broth­er Joe (Kyle Chan­dler) suf­fers a car­diac ar­rest and dies. While ar­rang­ing his fu­ner­al back at the town, Lee is shocked to find out that Joe named him guardian to his 16-year-old son Patrick (Lu­cas Hedges). But old mem­o­ries of that place are way too hard for him to bear, and so he be­gins to make plans for Patrick to move back to Boston with him — an idea that Patrick strong­ly opposes.

If I make this Man­ches­ter by the Sea sound like a dense dra­ma, that is ac­tu­al­ly quite far from be­ing the case. Di­rec­tor Ken­neth Lon­er­gan (who wrote the script from an idea pitched to him by Matt Da­mon and John Krasin­s­ki) man­ages what is so hard to see nowa­days: a film that finds an im­pec­ca­ble bal­ance be­tween dra­ma and hu­mor with­out be­ing tonal­ly messy. It is sur­pris­ing and re­al­ly amaz­ing how he is able to make us laugh out loud in one scene only to bring us to tears in the next, and this is a great sign of an au­thor in tune with the ma­te­r­i­al in his hands. That he has a su­perb cast to bring all these emo­tions to the screen is even better.

Af­ter an open­ing scene that takes place on a boat and uses an ef­fec­tive di­a­logue to il­lus­trate the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Lee and Patrick as they fish to­geth­er (Joe is there too but kept at a cer­tain dis­tance), Man­ches­ter by the Sea jumps many years ahead, and we find Lee now as a rude and un­friend­ly handy­man car­ry­ing out his rou­tine work in repet­i­tive shots that show him tak­ing out the garbage, fix­ing the plumb­ing and re­mov­ing the snow for ten­ants of the build­ing where he works. Us­ing a cold palette of col­ors to em­pha­size his soli­tude, the film also em­ploys flash­backs to grad­u­al­ly give us more in­for­ma­tion about the char­ac­ters and the re­la­tion­ship be­tween them, help­ing us un­der­stand what made Lee change so much in those years.

These flash­backs come up with­out warn­ing in the most per­fect mo­ments — those mo­ments in which our thoughts are free to move, usu­al­ly trig­gered by ex­ter­nal fac­tors, like when Lee is on the road dri­ving back to that town so full of un­want­ed mem­o­ries or when he is hav­ing a cru­cial con­ver­sa­tion lat­er on with a lawyer. But we nev­er get lost. The ex­cel­lent edit­ing keeps us al­ways aware of where we are, while the sen­si­tive script also al­lows us to con­nect with the char­ac­ters through triv­ial dis­cus­sions about seem­ing­ly ran­dom top­ics (like the sell­ing tac­tics of a fu­ner­al agent or the name of a street), or clever mo­ments of hu­mor that help es­tab­lish the dy­nam­ics be­tween un­cle and nephew once they meet again in Manchester.

Lon­er­gan finds beau­ty in de­tails, and we quick­ly no­tice we are watch­ing a flash­back scene from the cin­e­matog­ra­phy, the clothes the char­ac­ters wear and their hair­cuts. His com­po­si­tions are mean­ing­ful in their sim­plic­i­ty, like when we see a group of peo­ple around Joe’s bed in the hos­pi­tal and Lee is kept in the left cor­ner of the frame, his back turned to us. Like­wise, Lee’s dis­com­fort is nice­ly em­pha­sized by shots from many points of view as he re­ceives the news of Joe’s pass­ing at the hos­pi­tal, and it is in­ter­est­ing to ob­serve how the film usu­al­ly moves in to­wards win­dows, even cut­ting at one mo­ment from a tall one fac­ing a tree (in the present) to a small one in a cramped, low-ceil­ing base­ment with only two pur­ple ros­es out­side (in the past).

This con­trast be­tween past and present is at the core of Man­ches­ter by the Sea, and we see it on Lee’s face too. Casey Af­fleck in­jects a lot of hu­man­i­ty into a char­ac­ter that could have eas­i­ly be­come hate­ful. Lee doesn’t like to talk to oth­er peo­ple or have any sort of hu­man con­nec­tion. He wears dark clothes now, re­fus­es to apol­o­gize to a ten­ant af­ter be­ing hos­tile to her and keeps get­ting into bar fights for no rea­son. It is as though he is beg­ging us to hate him, but we only feel pity — and it is re­veal­ing how he briefly refers to Ran­di (Michelle Williams) as his wife even if they have been di­vorced for many years, or to see him punch a win­dow glass af­ter be­ing framed as a per­fect sil­hou­ette against the view of this town he can’t stand anymore.

Affleck’s per­for­mance is an ex­am­ple of un­der­act­ing. Lee bears a joy­less, dead­pan ex­pres­sion over­tak­en by an­he­do­nia, say­ing in a dry and di­rect man­ner that his broth­er “looks like he is dead” or re­act­ing list­less­ly when the moth­er of one of Patrick’s girl­friends in­vites him into her house. But you can see a lot of depth buried un­der all these lay­ers of ap­a­thy and guilt, and hear­ing Lee de­scribe a hor­ri­ble tragedy in de­tails is as painful as his sur­prise to find out that he can sim­ply go home and no one will hold him any longer at the po­lice sta­tion. When we fi­nal­ly see him cry, we know it is be­cause every­thing has be­come too much to bear, and I love the way he slow­ly shakes his head as he fi­nal­ly ad­mits that he is un­able to over­come his sorrow.

Lu­cas Hedges, on the oth­er hand, of­fers a re­fresh­ing com­ple­ment to Lee’s ap­a­thet­ic per­son­al­i­ty as a cocky teenag­er who tries to stay cool af­ter his father’s death by fo­cus­ing on a per­son­al mis­sion to have sex with his girl­friend Sandy (Anna Barysh­nikov). Patrick is usu­al­ly fun­ny and charis­mat­ic, which is what makes a pan­ic at­tack scene so mean­ing­ful (and his per­for­mance a true rev­e­la­tion). And while Michelle Williams evokes a lot of com­plex and con­flict­ing feel­ings in such a short screen time, she al­most ru­ins every­thing with a ter­ri­ble per­for­mance when Ran­di tells Lee how she still feels about him — and it is em­bar­rass­ing to wit­ness a tal­ent­ed ac­tress like Williams cry­ing and sob­bing in such an ar­ti­fi­cial way.

With a clas­si­cal mu­sic score that uses string and pi­ano arrange­ments to­geth­er with cho­rus­es and sa­cred mu­sic, Man­ches­ter by the Sea is as beau­ti­ful and melan­choly as the Ada­gio in G mi­nor, which plays in the most dev­as­tat­ing mo­ment of the film. And for a nar­ra­tive that avoids big mo­ments of cathar­sis or even a char­ac­ter arc, there is noth­ing more ap­pro­pri­ate than to end it on a bit­ter­sweet note that per­fect­ly rhymes with the first scene — a re­minder that some things sim­ply re­main the way they are and some peo­ple can­not change.


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