Manchester By the Sea: Riding the waves of grief

February 3, 2017

Manchester By the Sea (MA)

Rating: 4


Lee Chandler’s (Casey Affleck) grief fits him like a straitjacket. A cataclysmic event that occurred years before we first meet him has rendered Lee, who fills his days working as a put-upon janitor for a Boston apartment block, a shell of a man.

But when his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) dies suddenly, Lee is called back to his childhood home, the lyrically named Manchester-by-the-Sea. Not only does Lee have to deal with his own loss, to his absolute disbelief he’s been named guardian of his 16-year-old nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges).

The thing is that we, the audience, already suspect that Lee is incapable of taking on such an emotional load. His reticent interactions with the apartment’s tenants tell us as much (although so detached is he that they can hardly be called interactions), but could Patrick be the catalyst for change that Lee so desperately needs? 

Not on director/screenwriter Kenneth Lonergan’s watch. Pat resolutions are not Lonergan’s style. Lonergan, who has a formidable reputation as a screenwriter in Hollywood, but is perhaps best known for his 2000 film You Can Count on Me, takes life and filmmaking very seriously, and he abhors easy or neat resolutions in which everyone lives happily ever after. 

In this way, Manchester By the Sea can be called a study in grief. But this isn’t to say that it’s devoid of levity. This is a film where humour bursts out of the most unlikely and, often incongruous, moments (which arguably sprout the best kind of comedy). It’s also a film which acknowledges the importance of the mundane, the routine, in getting us through not only the day, but also the course of our lives. 

And so when Lee is forced to take Patrick under his wing, it’s natural that he initially bristles against it. Like Lee, Patrick, too, has a huge load to carry. Not only has he lost his beloved father, but he’s struggling to reconcile with his mother (Gretchen Mol), a former alcoholic who has remarried but still battles her own demons.

Patrick is also a typical teenager—selfish, self-absorbed and vaguely rebellious. When Lee tells Patrick that he’ll be moving to Boston with him, Patrick explodes in a torrent of self-justification, telling Lee that he can’t possibly leave behind his friends, his band and his two girlfriends. 

‘You’re just a janitor in Quincy, what the hell do you care where you live?’ he tells his uncle, barely masking his contempt.

At no time are we encouraged to judge or take sides. Lonergan acknow-ledges that grief is something wholly personal; and there’s no one size that fits all. The fact that it’s also long-lasting is beautifully evidenced in the standout scene between Lee and his ex-wife, Randi (Michelle Williams). 

As Randi gently pushes for reconciliation and, perhaps, even absolution, watch as Lee’s veneer begins to crack—only to resettle back into place.

It’s not surprising that Manchester By the Sea has dominated the awards. Affleck is thoroughly deserving of the Golden Globe for best actor award, but he’s certainly not alone in shining on screen. Hedges’ performance doesn’t miss a beat—he’s a real natural, while Kyle Chandler, Gretchen Mol, and C.J. Wilson as family friend George, are all uniformly strong. 

The film isn’t perfect, however. For one, the score, while easy to listen to, is also a little contrite and prescriptive. And, quite frankly, Michelle Williams—who gives a wondrous, arresting and painful performance—isn’t on screen long enough.

Highlight: the writing’s honesty 
Red flags: adult themes, coarse language, sex scenes


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