Manchester by the Sea (2016) – dir. Kenneth Lonergan

In late 2015, my maternal grandfather died very suddenly, following a vicious battle with pancreatic cancer. I think all of us had taken for granted the notion the he would be around for several years longer. My grandpa was only 61. He had spent the last several years taking good care of himself–he loved to go on about that Fitbit and his thousands of steps per day. This, compounded with the fact that literally everyone who knew my grandpa loved him, made his passing especially difficult to handle, and is especially difficult to describe. There is before my grandpa’s death, and there is after. The after is just waking up every day, for the last three years, and reaccepting the same horrible, disorienting reality, sometimes multiple times in the same day.

Now, I know some readers came here to read a review to kill time. Maybe they heard about Manchester by the Sea the year of the film’s release, saw the awards buzz around Casey Affleck–not to mention the pre-#MeToo controversy circling him–and were mildly curious. Manchester by the Sea is one of those movies a person hears about, and thinks, “Oh, I should really check that out; I hear so many good things,” but then move on with their lives. Perhaps the best way to recommend a film–because I love this picture quite a bit–is not to talk about the seemingly irreparable trauma of loss that my familiars have been suffering for the last few years. And yet, the two are inseparable to me.

Though Manchester by the Sea debuted at Sundance, and even played in Salt Lake City, two months after my grandpa died, I didn’t get around to the picture until a limited release in late 2016. But Manchester by the Sea was worth the wait. Kenneth Lonergan’s forbearing family drama is an accomplished portrait of grieving and reconciliation. Lonergan’s film is devastating, sometimes hopeful, but resolutely honest and earned, capturing the aftermath for those survived by the deceased as thoughtfully as the best of them.

Though Manchester by the Sea does so many things impeccably, part of the appeal is how Lonergan gives us over to Lee (Casey Affleck). We casually whittle away a day with Lee, while he works his maintenance gig that he’s worked for as long as he’s lived in Quincy, MA. He assesses plumbing, does small repairs while his tenants go about their business, and he mainly ignores folks. After a dispute with one woman whose shower requires an actual plumber, Lee’s boss chides him for not getting along better with his tenants. Lee argues that he does his job, and otherwise minds his own business. And Lee really doesn’t get along with others. He goes to a bar, only to get into a fight after he thinks a blue collar patron looks at him funny. And yet, Lee could’ve just stayed home and drank alone. Manchester by the Sea is all about these minor moments, and Lonergan, in no time at all, lets us know everything we need to about Lee.

Lee is whisked away from his impossibly exciting life when, one winter day, he receives news that his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) finally succumbs to a cardiac condition, inevitably but still suddenly. This takes Lee back to his hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea, where he handles the logistics of his brother’s death, the most significant stipulation being that Lee is named guardian to his 16-year-old nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Naturally, Lee is resistant to take on someone else’s kid, even his brother’s, and even if they’re someone he loves. He can’t really take Patrick with him back to Quincy, and he can’t really stay in a place where he has so much tumultuous history as Manchester. Because Lee is also wrestling with the deaths of his kids, and subsequent separation from his wife Randi (Michelle Williams), both of which he blames himself for. Even people from Manchester-by-the-Sea know Lee’s story, and many of the townsfolk look at him with much of the same disgust with which Lee Looks at himself.

While Lee carries himself with the stoicism of a man with a lot of pent up baggage, Patrick seems almost unfazed by his father’s passing, which is almost understandable. He’s young when Joe is diagnosed with the sickness that would eventually kill him. Patrick has had a while to come to terms with things. In fact, Patrick is rather insistent about going about his daily routine. His friends and other adults in his life almost have to remind him that his dad just died. Instead, Patrick preoccupies himself with hockey–until his coach (Tate Donovan) forces him to take some time off–playing in a terrible basement band, with his girlfriends Silvie) (Kara Hayward, whom Patrick appears to have sniped from fellow Khaki Scout Sam Shakusky) and his lead singer Sandy (Anna Baryshnikov). All the while, Patrick is, against Lee’s wishes, corresponding with his estranged, junkie-cum-born-again mother Elise (Gretchen Mol),

Lee and Patrick’s dynamic ends up being the heart of the film, both as a catalyst for narrative and character. We see Lee adjusting to Patrick, and leaning bit by bit into letting this kid into his life. And we see Patrick grow up; trying to stay strong after losing his one good parent, and make mature decisions about his life moving forward. Because we care about them, despite their inarguable humanity–be this Lee’s constant sourpuss disposition, or Patrick’s penchant for philandering. So, when Lee has a tearful confrontation with Randi, or when Patrick freaks out about his dad being frozen until he can be buried in the spring, that crushing catharsis hits hard. Both Lee and Patrick embody the ways people mishandle grief. In their own ways, they refuse to confront their demons until their pain sneaks up on them.

And yet, Lonergan knows better than to beat a dead horse, because, for as sad and heartbroken as Manchester by the Sea is, the film is genuinely joyful. Though Manchester by the Sea deals heavily with death and self-loathing in unmistakably raw terms, few films of 2016 are remotely as funny–the best bit occurring during Joe’s funeral reception, when a family friend George (C.J. Wilson) is offering some food to Lee, and George and his wife yell at and mishear one another from across the room, doing their darnedest to console Lee. Moreover, Lee and Patrick have chemistry effortless enough to elevate Manchester by the Sea from interesting and touching to something much deep and affectionate.

Something I find myself telling people, in response to some issue they’re dealing with about which they confide in me, is that most of what they’re dealing with is common, and yet, no one has ever been able to figure out a definitive solution for what they’re going through; so, how ever they’re dealing, they can’t be doing that much worse than anyone before them. And because death is such an elusive frontier of human understanding, struggles with loss will probably always plague is us in one way or another. Manchester by the Sea confronts the fear that, although life goes on, cogs and all, parts of us can’t. Healing is slow, and potentially impossible. The way we look at others when we lose someone we care about changes, and often stymies us from getting too close to others, no matter how badly we might want to. The roles others’ leave unfilled when they die create unfamiliar, often rocky dynamics and reconfigurations, even between family or long-time friends. Yet, Lonergan is not nihilistic or masochistic in his storytelling. He wants us to feel the spectrum of human emotion. Manchester by the Sea may be unflinching and unsentimental, but the film affords enough dignity to let us know that even if we can never forgive ourselves, or even if we are sure we can’t be whole or fixed, that just being willing to try a little for others, that being alive and near for others, is enough.

Rating – 9.1/10

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