Director: Kenneth Lonergan
Screenplay: Kenneth Lonergan
Stars: Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, Gretchen Mol and Lucas Hedges
Plot: Boston handyman Lee Chandler (Affleck) returns to his hometown of Manchester, Massachusetts following the death of his brother (Chandler). To Lee, his old home is the site of grief-filled events that he would rather forget and he struggles to hide his emotions as he learns that he is the adopted guardian of his nephew Patrick (Hedges).
There is a scene towards the climax of Manchester by the Sea that has had many critics praising it as one of the best of 2017. It is the scene where protagonist Lee (Casey Affleck) bumps into his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams) after years of separation. The two initially chat happily, but the scene soon takes on a heartbreakingly sad turn. Both have been torn apart by a devastating life event that has consumed Lee with enormous guilt and self-withdrawal from society. A tearful Randi expresses great remorse and clearly wants to reconnect with him, but is left heartbroken when he mournfully says “There’s nothing there,” and leaves quietly. It is a moving scene because the drama is so subtle and the dialogue so real, both brought to life by the superb acting of Affleck and Williams.
What enriches this scene even more is how it fits within an overall emotionally powerful movie. In only his third feature film as a director, screenwriter Kenneth Lonergan has crafted a real gem that is driven by a well-written plot and excellently conceived characters. The plot is wrapped around the sensitive theme of grief and how it can cause one person’s life to fall apart. Lee’s tragedy has driven him into being a depressed and reclusive man full of tormented regret, his past beautifully shown through the use of flashbacks. He is a humanely sympathetic character in the hands of Lonergan and Affleck, unquestionably giving one of his best performances of his whole career.
For all the emotional resonance involved, Manchester by the Sea also succeeds in being consistently funny without disrupting the drama. This is largely down to the heart-warming relationship between Lee and his nephew Patrick. Newcomer Lucas Hedges is terrific as Patrick, someone arguably more mature and successful in masking his grief than his uncle. The humour often stems from Lee’s confused reactions to Patrick’s requests and behaviour; when Patrick asks if one of his girlfriends can stay round, Lee’s rather childish response is “Am I supposed to tell you to use a condom?” But what makes this funnier is how it makes Lee’s character even more understandable; he has been away for so long that he has forgotten how to properly interact with the other people in his life. Drama and comedy are not easily wedded to each other and yet this is one film that succeeds in doing this.
The landscape of Massachusetts itself creates a perfect character, its beautiful scenery masking the internal problems that its characters must deal with. In particular, Manchester’s harbour is the setting for two scenes that bookend the whole film where Lee and Patrick go fishing. The first scene is full of the happier times of the two’s past; the second offers respite from present grief. These scenes are perhaps a subtle reminder that there is happiness left in Lee’s world, one that is driven by overpowering loss. This makes Manchester by the Sea quite difficult to watch, but ultimately all the more rewarding for doing so.