Loss can be devastating, and not processing it can make long-buried emotions resurface. That’s the core lesson of Kenneth Lonergan’s newest story surrounding a tragic event, Manchester by the Sea, which utilizes flashbacks to reveal a tragedy from the past that informs problems in the present.
Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) works as an emotionally distant maintenance worker for a number of apartments in Boston. He barely acknowledges the tenants where he works, lives on his own, and is prone to getting into fights at bars. When his older brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), dies of heart disease, Lee is forced to return to his hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea to make funeral arrangements and get to work on Joe’s estate. Lee is stunned to learn, though, that Joe has secretly named Lee as the legal guardian of his 15-year-old son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). It’s a plan Lee doesn’t want to go with, and neither does Patrick, who’s built a life for himself that he doesn’t want seen torn away by moving to Boston. As the two figure out what to do, though, Lee takes Patrick around town as needed, and they begin to form an unsteady new bond.
Over the course of the film, flashbacks show Lee, Joe, and Patrick in happier times when the three would frequently spend time together. They also show how the families have changed, with Lee most notably as a family man. The flashbacks build up, until they reach the event that changed all of their lives.
Lonergan is an impressive writer, and he’s smart in how he deploys dialogue between the characters. Rather than using it to spell out in detail how these characters feel, he creates conversations that feel authentic to how humans speak with one another. He relies instead on his cast to convey the feelings of these characters through their expressions and body language.
Affleck’s performance as Lee is already generating awards buzz, and it’s clear why: it’s intense, but quietly repressed. There’s clearly pain under the surface, and on occasion, it begins to bubble up. And while Chandler and Michelle Williams as Lee’s ex-wife both turn in remarkable performances, Affleck’s biggest scene partner is newcomer Hedges, who absolutely crackles with energy. With these two having differing demeanors, it would be easy for the two to not fit naturally together, but Lee and Patrick feel like family in spite of their differences, and their differences make for some genuinely humorous scenes.
Manchester by the Sea isn’t always an easy watch, but it’s a rewarding one. It feels true to the human condition, and its decision to move at its own pace – and to leave its ending a bit open-ended – work to its advantage. It’s a powerful new work from a talented filmmaker.