Manchester By The Sea, Kenneth Lonergan’s film of novelistic depth, chronicles a Massachutan man named Lee (Casey Affleck) as he struggles to cope with the great losses he has experienced in his young life and move back into community with the people who love him. Many of these losses are kept secret for more than half of the film, and they’re revealed in a masterfully written and realized scene that I’m sure will remain on my list of best scenes of the year for all of 2016. I will not spoil it for you.
Lee is also dealing with the loss of his brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), whose death forces Lee to return to his hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea to arrange his late brother’s affairs and care for Joe’s teenage son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Manchester By The Sea is heartbreaking and funny, and both emotional extremes are earned in natural, character-driven ways. This is a wonderful, smart, mature film full of wonderful performances – in addition to the actors I’ve already mentioned, Michelle Williams, Heather Burns, and C.J. Wilson also turn in nuanced, compelling performances. See Manchester By The Sea when it is released near you later in the year. We don’t get films like this very often that treat their audiences with such respect, as if they are capable of encountering with complex emotions and responding empathetically.
Lonergan and cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes frequently frame Lee with conspicuous space beside him. He walks numbly through life hand-in-hand with the absence of the people he loved and lost. Lee also doesn’t want to let anyone else into the frame with him either. The events of the film give him the opportunity to let people in. It’s hard.
Returning to his hometown is a nightmare for Lee. In Manchester-by-the-Sea, the things in his past that he wants to let die don’t, and the things he want’s to keep alive die. His hometown is haunted by ghosts, and like the ground in winter, he is too hard and cold to do the work necessary to lay them to rest.
Lee’s avoidance of his own emotions is echoed by the way all the men in the movie deal with their emotions. They joke. They curse. They hit each other. They do anything but talk about it. The women do the opposite. They want to cry and talk and hold each other. Neither way is depicted as totally correct. They need each other. These different ways of dealing with loss drive wedges between men and women in the film. And if that sounds reductionistic, look past my paltry description and trust me when I say this is depicted artistically in the film. The film makes you think about how you respond to loss and perhaps how you should respond instead.
Manchester By The Sea is almost too good. It is so well-written, acted, and directed, you know there is more happening in the film at any moment than you are capable of processing. You have to let it wash over you like an ocean wave. It invites repeat viewings and further reflection. Seeing it in the middle of a busy film festival, like I did, is entirely the wrong way to see it. This is patient, thoughtful film worth watching patiently and thoughtfully. I can’t wait to see it again and again and again.