Manchester by the Sea is an American drama about the remains of a Massachusetts family dealing with a sudden death. The film is directed by Kenneth Lonergan. Lonergan is typically a screenwriter but seems to be no less brilliant at the director’s chair. It stars Casey Affleck as Lee Chandler, a quiet shell of a person working as a janitor in Boston. When his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) dies, Lee must return to his oceanfront home town of Manchester to look after his teenage nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Manchester by the Sea will screen at the New York Film Festival this year. It is slated for a limited US release on November 18th.
Kenneth Lonergan turns what would typically be a very schmaltzy drama into a great film by adding realism in two ways. First of all, Manchester by the Sea is a very funny movie. In any family tragedy, there is a great deal of pain and loss. But also like any family reunion it can be awkward and a comedy of errors. Lee has closed himself off from the world for years. He has no idea how to care for a teenager, let alone one that is nearly an adult and juggling two girlfriends. Communication breaks down over the many meanings of the words “let’s go”. Lee loses the car on a freezing New England day. He has to entertain a local mom while Patrick is trying to have some alone time with her daughter.
But also Manchester by the Sea is not a story about fixing Lee Chandler. There is no magical love interest that can bring him back to humanity. There is no montage of uncle-nephew bonding to pull him out of his stoic isolation. Certain scars just cannot be cured, not even with two hours of movie magic. The citizens of Manchester hear the name “Lee Chandler” and gossip. He could never have a home in this town again. Instead, Manchester by the Sea is a movie about solving what can be solved, making the best out of things.
A Haunted New England Film
Visually Manchester by the Sea is comprised of two elements: snowbound New England suburbs and the ocean. This film builds an excellent sense of place in the town of Manchester. Ice-filled bays and overcast skies are repeated images. I think Kenneth Lonergan wrote whole scenes just to get his actors say the word “shahk” in their Boston accents. The setting adds something – a physical reality to a moving drama that could just as easily been set anywhere.
Structurally the film makes great use of flashbacks to push the audience along. Lee and Patrick are shown bonding together on Joe’s boat when Patrick is just a kid. When the audience finally sees Patrick as the young adult he has become, it is as much a shock to Lee as it is to us. We see the contrast of Lee now, a haunted man who refuses every invitation for personal connection, to the man he once was, a loving father and husband to his wife, Brandi (Michelle Williams). How did he get to this point? This structure also adds more reality to Manchester by the Sea. Any moment of loss is not lived solely in the present, but just as much in the past as you try to hold onto the key moments that matter most.
Manchester by the Sea is a bitterly humorous but accurate take on a very difficult moment in life. It is the kind of movie that keeps you chuckling all through its running time but leaves you with an inescapable need to cry at the end. The film is looking for a shot at Best Picture come Oscar Season. With a strong cast and a fine craft from Lonergan’s direction, Manchester by the Sea could be a strong contender.