At the very beginning we are introduced to the central character of Lee chandler, a handyman (played by Casey Affleck) who goes about living a solitary life in a single room basement doing electrical work, plumbing, taking out the garbage and an array of other mundane tasks for the grumpy tenants of the building he works at. His older brother Joe (played by Kyle Chandler) lives in Manchester, a seaside town an hour up the coast, with his son, Patrick (played by Lucas Hedges). News of joe’s death sends Lee back to Manchester, the site of a loss so terrible that none dare to mention it. He is not just Lee Chandler here but ‘the Lee Chandler’.
Back in his hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea while staying in Joe’s home and arranging Joe’s funeral, Lee is shocked to learn that Joe has named him as Patrick’s guardian. Reluctant to commit to the guardianship and unwilling to move back to Manchester, but opposed to returning Patrick to his estranged alcoholic mother, Lee makes plans for Patrick to move back to Boston with him. Patrick, deeply rooted in the Manchester community, objects to the idea.
The Oddball Relationships
Lee’s shrewd face pulses with anger as he tries to understand this unexpected burden of responsibility that he definitely did not bargain for. With clenched teeth and the most subtle pursed lips he goes to bars, ignores attractive women coming on to him and instead finds men to fight. A sociopath withdrawn from the world, who ignores any and every display of affection suddenly finds himself as the legal guardian of a 16-year-old, who in his own words “have two girlfriends and is in a band”. Patrick, in stark contrast to Lee, is a mixture of vulnerable, clueless and precociously worldly; and in many ways much better at masking his own grief than his uncle, until it finally pours out when a freezer spillage sparks a panic attack.
This odd couple relationship between lee and his nephew is what dominates the bulk of the movie and that is definitely not a bad thing but it does divert from some of the other interesting characters. Randi (played by Michelle Williams) gets particularly sidelined diminishing the complexity of her character as most of her is explored through flashbacks of the past and a particularly heart-wrenching scene when Lee and Randi attempt to mend their relationship in an alleyway but ultimately fail.
Kenneth Lonergan, writer and director, previously co-wrote “Sopranos” a lite comedy and “Analyse this (1999)”; and made his directorial debut with “You Can Count On Me (200)” and later In 2005, filming took place for his second film as writer/director, Margaret. The film spent over five years in post-production, with Lonergan, the producers and various editors unable to agree on its final cut, resulting in multiple legal disputes. It was finally released in 2011 to critical acclaim. He earned an Academy Award for Best Director nomination for Manchester by the Sea, and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for You Can Count on Me.
Lonergan’s precision with his actors, the way he invokes a sense of place and the level of control of tone is strikingly visible throughout the film. The way he methodically strives to avoid false notes is masterful work. It might not have the risk and sprawl of his 2011 masterpiece ‘Margaret’; even so it does not follow predetermined story arcs and sob stories of loss and eventual healing and harmony we may be expecting.
Lonergan breaks the monotonous, mundane proceedings of the present by interspersing it with trickling increments of past events as carefully placed critical scenes, each provoked by current circumstances or thoughts of the characters. An exchange with a doctor in a hospital lift brings us back to the moment when Joe was first diagnosed, before Lee pays his last respects in the mortuary room.
Life as it is lived
Manchester by the Sea, is an honest portrayal of life as it is lived in the real world. Life with no narrative closure. Emptiness is hard to portray and is too often represented by blank stares and vacant glances. Manchester by the Sea, avoids those oversights with its superbly complementing location and its two contrasting timelines with performances that bring into service the full range of its outstanding cast.
Lonergan’s film unapologetically suggests that life simply carries on; at some point, a decision is made and the courage found to keep up with it. As “Margaret” Lonergan’s films have always been more like works-in-progress rather than perfectly finished artefacts and it left me wanting more. With an outstanding set and poignant performances, the winner of the Academy Awards for best original script and best actor is a definite must-see.