Kenneth Lonergan’s films are rooted in their love of the underdogs and forgotten characters in society and sticks with their foibles. His latest feature, Manchester By The Sea, situated within the tortured psyche of Lee Chandler (a masterful Casey Affleck).
Lee is a quiet handyman whose routine is upturned when his beloved brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) dies and leaves guardianship of his son Patrick (Lucas Hedges) to him. With the fragmented narrative, we get to know how Lee became as tightly wound as he is and his tortured relationship to the eponymous town by slipping between the past and present. Back then, Lee was in a happy marriage with Randy (Michelle Williams) and a doting father to his three children, until one mistake costs him that idyll. I won’t spoil it here as the payoff is devastating in the present as Lee grapples with his temper and trying to get his shit together for Patrick.
Patrick is unwilling to leave his perfect life of two girlfriends, his band, and sports behind to live in Quincy with Lee. Lonergan casts a hilarious contrast between the uncle and nephew as they get used to their new normal. It’s almost rote for a film with this subject matter to get dour but Lonergan never lets the thorniness to ring false.
With an ear for Bostonian quirks and ball-busting dialogue, Lonergan chips away at Lee’s cloistered masculinity – he hugs and kisses his brother’s body but goes back to joshing and awkwardness in the hospital after. It’s also apparent when Patrick has a panic attack after the memorial, and says to Lee, “I’m fine now, will you just go away?” This refusal to engage with their feelings haunts the movie and when Lee meets with Randy again, there’s a cathartic break as they both flub in front each other after many years apart. Lonergan creates an operatic study of grief in the middle section of the film where we learn about Lee’s tragic past.
Many actors are associated with their cities: New York conjures up Pacino, Brando, or De Niro, but Boston belongs to the Affleck brothers. Casey, who I’ve reluctantly grown to love over the years, specializes in that method and mumbly style where he underplays so unassumingly that you almost think he’s phoning it in. Lonergan plays to his strengths, and Affleck does some bruising and haunted work as Lee works through his trauma. His chemistry with Hedges is electric and their comedic sparring cuts the tension like a welcome knife.
Lonergan doesn’t offer up any cliche routes for Lee or Patrick. Getting over trauma is a daily struggle for Lee and your heart goes out to him as he navigates responsibility and doing what’s right by Patrick. No moment in this journey feels inauthentic to their struggles of loss and mourning. Therapy and pills aren’t hinted at in the film, Lonergan doesn’t point to a right way of healing and moving past trauma which is very radical and accepting. Lee’s denouement feels well-earned and there’s not a sore note in the finale of the film.
Manchester By the Sea is a stunning study of grief and masculinity with career-best work from Affleck.