Manchester by the Sea (2016 Amazon Studios, Roadside Attractions, K Period Media, B Story, CMP, Pearl Street Films)
Starring Casey Afflect, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler and Lucas Hedges.
Written and Directed by Kenneth Lonergan.
Producers: Matt Damon, Kimberly Steward, Chris Moore, Kevin J. Walsh, Lauren Beck.
Cinematography by Jody Lee Lipes. Edited by Jennifer Lame
Lee Chandler is a brooding, irritable loner who works as a handyman for a Boston apartment block. One damp winter day he gets a call summoning him to his hometown, north of the city. His brother’s heart has given out suddenly, and he’s been named guardian to his 16-year-old nephew. As if losing his only sibling and doubts about raising a teenager weren’t enough, his return to the past re-opens an unspeakable tragedy.
Might as well call it Limbo by the Sea, because all its residences are living in limbo, for assorted reasons. Whether tragedy, addiction, bad health or whatever put them there, Manchester by the Sea is a town full of people who either can’t or won’t get out of their own way; a bunch of tortured souls that don’t know how to move on. Or, in Lee Chandler’s case, you refuse to move on.
Well, all but Joe. He moved on, whether he wanted to or not.
Yes, that’s a rather glib review of Manchester by the Sea, but it’s pretty much what we’re dealing with in this film. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good movie, but finding a takeaway to latch onto is difficult.
Casey Affleck, as Lee Chandler, gives a great performance in Manchester by the Sea, as does Lucas Hedges as his nephew, Patty. But if we’re to glean from the two of them some sort of chemistry, it’s hard to find. Then again, Lee’s M.O. throughout the story is to push everyone away as a means of punishment for his past.
For his part, Patty comes across as either spoiled or ungrateful for most of Manchester by the Sea. It’s difficult to tell if he’s grieving or just doesn’t care, so long as his life isn’t upturned too much by his father’s death.
It’s an interesting story about ordinary people muddling through their lives, trying to sort out their own issues while addressing the loss of a loved one. At times, it fees a bit like Ordinary People, set in a cold, gray, wintry city in New England.
Even though everyone’s going through some level of personal torture (or so it seems), writer/director Kenneth Lonergan maintains the story through Lee’s point of view, sometimes uncomfortably so. Even when he tries to loosen himself from his own guilt, he always finds a way back to it. And if Lee doesn’t fall back into his guilt, someone else drags him there. The one time someone tries to pull him out of it, to let him free himself from his sins, leads to one of the most wrenching scenes in the movie.
Manchester by the Sea is a slow burn and a good story. But don’t come here looking for some big payoff in the end or a triumph-of-the-human-spirit climax. To that end, Manchester by the Sea is like real life. In the movie, as in real life, sometimes you just have to do the best you can to get by.
***-1/2 stars (out of five)