Dealing with the aftermath of a tragedy turns a once warm and ebullient family man into a solemn, withdrawn, and angry loner in Kenneth Lonergan’s (“Margaret”) bittersweet drama Manchester by the Sea, one of the best films of 2016. Set in the picturesque city of Manchester on Massachusetts’ north shore, cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes (“Martha Marcy May Marlene”) captures the rugged beauty of the New England town with its bays filled with trawlers and its winter streets and municipal buildings covered in a shimmering white. It is a town that looks as if it has not changed in decades, or even centuries.
Lee Chandler (in a haunting performance by Casey Affleck, “Interstellar”), is a janitor/handyman who spends his days painting, doing minor plumbing work, repairing leaks, and so on or just giving advice while making sure to avoid any social interaction with the people he is working for. His nights are spent drinking alone in bars where he is quick to start fights or at home watching TV in his small apartment. There is no hint during the film’s first half hour about what has brought him to his present state of disequilibrium, but in his mumbling inability to express his thoughts, we know that something unspoken is driving his need for isolation.
Lee has been living in nearby Quincy but, when his older brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler, “Carol”) succumbs to a heart attack, he has to return to Manchester to make funeral arrangements and attend the reading of the will and to confront the people that he has turned away from. His grief over his brother’s death turns to shock, however, when he discovers that he has been named the legal guardian of Joe’s 16-year-old son Patrick (Lucas Hedges, “Anesthesia”), a popular high school student. Since Patrick’s mom Elise (Gretchen Mol, “3:10 to Yuma”) is an alcoholic who left town long ago, Lee is the only person who can assume the task.
It is one, however, that he does not feel ready for. Eventually, the seminal event that changed Lee’s life forever is revealed, depicted in a straightforward manner without histrionics or pandering, even if the overused baroque music tends to amplify the drama beyond what is required. In flashbacks, we see that Lee was once a happy family man with a loving wife Randi (Michelle Williams, “Oz the Great and Powerful”) and three young children and we see him joking around with his young nephew Patrick (Ben O’Brien) on their fishing boat. Assuming the responsibility of being a father-figure to Patrick, we glimpse the man that Lee used to be.
The dialogue between the abrasive Lee and the feisty, sharp-tongued Patrick feels real and without guile, but channeling the chemistry they have together into rebuilding his life is a challenge. Manchester by the Sea is a serious film but is balanced by humor. In one such scene, Patrick awkwardly attempts to hide the obvious from his mom about studying in his room with his girlfriend. Another funny incident takes place when Lee is used as a cover for Patrick’s surreptitious juggling of his two girlfriends. The issues between them take a more serious tone, however, when Lee is convinced that he and Patrick should move to Boston, a suggestion that Patrick rebels at, citing his high school girlfriends, his being on the soccer team, and his playing in the school band.
Though Michelle Williams has a small role, she turns in one of her best performances. In a powerful confrontation with Lee, it is clear that she still loves him but has felt compelled to suppress it in order to bury the past and move on. Manchester by the Sea belongs to Casey Affleck though, who turns in what is arguably the best performance of his career. The film does not have the sort of neat resolution that you may have come to expect, but what it does have are real people whose lives you want to be a part of and you know that that world is not one that can only happen in the movies, but a real experience of life fully lived in all its pain and all its joy.