The TV commercial currently running for Manchester by the Sea stresses how funny the film is. Certainly, there is humor in the movie, but it is about as far from being a comedy as a movie can get. Critic David Edelstein opens his review of the film by noting that the trailer he saw was also unusually unrepresentative. Unfortunately, the publication he writes for opted to saddle his piece with the headline “Manchester by the Sea is Unrelenting in Its Bleakness,” which goes too far the other way.
Now it's my turn to try to give you an idea of what the film is about. Manchester by the Sea is a small film about grief, loss, and the awkwardness that usually accompanies a crisis. That all sounds very sad, of course, but the story is realistic enough to include the humor many of us use to deal with pain, along with the clumsy, comical moments that life provides pretty much all of the time. The film is rich because it is so well-observed. It's one of the very best movies I've seen this year.
The film is written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, the man behind You Can Count On Me and Margaret. It stars Casey Affleck as Lee, a handyman tending to a group of apartments. As we watch him work on wiring and plumbing while navigating through conversations with the tenants, we have no idea he is living in self-imposed exile.
The film opens with a scene from happier days: Lee, his beloved older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler), and his nephew on the family fishing boat, the Claudie Marie, in the waters outside their Massachusetts hometown.
Lee is about to be forced to return to Manchester-by-the-Sea. Joe has had a heart attack. This isn't a huge surprise, Joe, his wife Elise (Gretchen Mol), and the rest of the family were informed a while back that he had a serious heart condition. That knowledge does not lessen the blow when Lee makes the drive home, arrives at the hospital, and finds out that Joe has died.
Lee breaks the news to Joe's son, 15-year-old Patrick (Lucas Hedges). They end up arguing, and arguing, in such an ugly fashion that a stranger passing them on the street facetious remarks, “Great parenting,” setting off a new argument parallel to the one that sparked the comment. (Fun Fact: the wise-ass passerby is writer-director Lonergan).
The anger builds when Lee and Patrick meet the lawyer for the reading of the will. Joe has named Patrick as his desired guardian for Patrick. The men are flattened. When the dust settles, Lee decides that, if this is going to happen, then Patrick will move to where he lives. Patrick wants none of that. He has a life in Manchester-by-the-Sea, with a rock band and two girlfriends.
So why doesn't Lee just move back home? Surely there are plenty of apartments in need of repairs in his home town. Something happened, something that causes people to whisper Lee's name when he passes. Something that relates to Lee's ex-wife, Randi (Michelle Williams, excellent as usual).
I won't say what happens, of course, but I want to stress that it doesn't feel like a dramatic contrivance. The story has Lee at odds with most everybody, including himself. The incident clarifies his behavior, without tying anything in a neat little bow.
The acting is top flight across the board, with Affleck doing perhaps his best work yet in a role first offered to John Krasinski, and then Matt Damon. Glad they turned it down (Krasinski is an executive producer for the film, Damon is a producer). Lesley Barber's score is well-disciplined except for one scene that where it gets a little pushy. That's easy to forgive in a film dealing with life and death, and forgiveness of yourself and others. Manchester by the Sea is eloquent about a group of people that, for the most part, tend to sputter, or stammer while incorporating the word “fuckin'” a lot. Kenneth Lonergan has crafted a film that speaks to the human condition without getting pretentious. Insight is rarely this accessible.
Note: Manchester, Mass. became Manchester-by-the-Sea in 1989, when local resident Ed Corley convinced town leaders that just plain Manchester wasn't enough to convey the uniqueness of the community. Many locals consider the suffix snooty and refuse to use it.