Manchester by the Sea review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
Manchester by the Sea is an aftermath picture, following relatable characters and how they try to live in the wake of deaths. It is a sometimes awkward, sometimes funny, sometimes depressingly sad story, about as human as any tale of mourning can be. And rather than focus on creating tighter moments of drama, the movie instead focuses on the more difficult and uncomfortable aspects of handling the passing of loved ones. Life goes on, just a little differently and a little more scary.
Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is presented as a quiet, flawed and simple man, working the lonely and often thankless job of an apartment handyman. Some tenants fancy him while other go on the offensive, leaving to passive aggressively respond to their complaints. The nights that are not spent watching the game in his quaint studio apartment are spent in bars where he will occasionally start a fight. His dreary routine is soon interrupted to discover his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has passed away in Manchester. He arrives to examine the body, makes the tearful confirmation and begins the long and painful process of funeral arrangements. While spending time in Manchester to handle the funeral, he’s also tasked with looking after his teenage nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) and eventually learns from the will that he’s the new guardian.
This scenario could have easily turned into a soapy drama where Lee tries to understand being a parent of a depressed kid, but the script thankfully never goes for such easy drama. Lee has known Patrick since he was a boy so their relationship doesn’t require much cultivation. Patrick doesn’t appear to require a whole lot of maintenance either as the day of his father’s death finds him trying to spend the evening with friends and pizza at home as Lee stays out of their way. It’s not until the discussion what to do with Kyle’s body does their conversation turn a little more heated, only reaching a maximum level of frustration when deciding on where to live.
Through a series of flashbacks, we learn why Lee left Manchester to begin with and why he is so eager to leave it behind. It is slowly revealed that he made a grave mistake with his family that is probably the most disheartening and worst situation for a man who wasn’t quite all there. It’s a mistake that will cut deep for any parent, leading to the question if you could live with yourself after such an event. Many will not understand how Lee could live in the aftermath and the character himself probably has similar thoughts where suicide was not out of the question.
Casey Affleck perfectly plays this tortured character that slowly begins to accept the comfy lifestyle of a family once more. He has a natural presence with his silence and mumbling that never feels overdone for a loner. The scene where has to identify a body at the morgue features him in a rare moment of tears which was not written into the original script. Lucas Hedges isn’t too shabby either as teenager who has conflicting views on his father and Lee, only really becoming emotional over the fate of the boat where all three of them connected. Director Kenneth Lonergan has an expert eye for shooting the cold neighborhood of Manchester, focusing on the black nights, snowy lawns and cozy interiors. He knows how to give this town as much character as his leads, holding just long enough to appreciate the world before moving on to the next step towards a funeral.
Despite being over two hours, Manchester by the Sea never feels overblown, excessive or slow. It’s a very easy-going movie where tears only come where they’re most needed and light smiles come unexpectedly in the most awkward of situations. Scenes can go anywhere from Kyle tearfully breaking down over realizing his dad’s body has yet to buried to an embarrassingly amusing scene where Lee breaks down his door to make sure he’s okay. The film might be a tough sell for being so somber and relatable, but it’s refreshing at times to see a movie where characters feel real, human and filled with complexity.