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 (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.