4.5 / 5
Kenneth Lonergan's quietly heartbreaking movie Manchester by the Sea is bookended with shots of the ocean, of fishing boats and a quiet coastal village a few dozen miles north of Boston.
It's the sort of place we romanticize: "Let's live there when we retire." So picturesque, so quaint, so American with its colonial architecture and slightly ramshackle, fishing-boat appearance. We pass through and talk to the locals and imagine their lives, smiling along the way. They have their losses, though, every one of them.
Manchester by the Sea shows us a man who appears to be not much more or less than average: Lee Chandler, a guy who never went to college, who's much better looking than he knows and capable of much more than being an apartment-building janitor who unclogs excrement-filled toilets of single women who quietly lust after him. He's oblivious to the menial work and to the sultry looks; he's oblivious, really, to life.
When Manchester by the Sea opens, Lee gets the sort of phone call that always happens when we're in the middle of something else, that takes us by such surprise that we don't, as movies so frequently depict, break down in tears or devolve into a wailing mass of emotion -- we respond to these sort of calls the way Lee does: We listen to the information, we figure out what we need to do next, we do it. These are the sort of phone calls that place us on auto-pilot.
In Lee's case, the call is from a hospital in a town between Boston and Lee's hometown of Manchester by the Sea. Lee's brother, Joe, has died suddenly. Joe's best friend, George, tries to explain but can't -- there they were, looking at boats, and Joe just sort of fell down. George thought he was joking. He couldn't believe it could happen so fast.
Lee knows how fast things happen, and not just because Joe's 16-year-old son, Patrick, becomes Lee's instant responsibility. There's much more going on in Manchester by the Sea, which the film takes some time to reveal. Lee and Patrick both have their worlds shaken, but in one long, stunning, near-wordless scene -- gripping and beautiful in its form, shocking in its content, all set to the bombastic strains of Albinoni's Adagio in G Minor -- Lonergan's impeccably crafted screenplay reveals the horrific depths of Lee's grief. Joe's unexpected death is downright manageable in light of what Lee has experienced with his ex-wife Randi.
So impossible was the scenario he faced some years ago that retreating to the safe anonymity of Boston made the most emotional sense -- minimum wage and toilet plungers can be something of a relief.
And yet, now Lee is faced with yet another life-changing event he didn't want: Joe has appointed him legal guardian over the strong-willed, bright, perpetually horny Patrick. Who knows how long it's been since they saw each other? Maybe not since Patrick was a little boy and his mother finally had one too many alcohol-driven blackouts, which finally proved too much for Joe.
Whatever the case, it doesn't matter, which is part of the point that Manchester by the Sea is making: It's irrelevant whether we're close or distant, whether we're blood or friends -- we're tied to the people who have, for better or rose, made us. We can't escape them. "The past is never dead," Faulkner wrote, "it isn't even past."
We can't escape the people, we can't escape the events, we can't escape the little successes and the minor failings, the silly mistakes and the profound ones. They're all who we are. But some of us deal with that better than others, and Manchester by the Sea's real brilliance is in how it takes a character who resists conventional notions of healing and moving on, but who has to keep plowing forward all the same.
Casey Affleck plays Lee with such understated anger and simmering hostility that it's both a shock and a cathartic relief the couple of times he hauls off and punches people in the movie. He needs to do something. Patrick, played by a genuinely revelatory actor named Lucas Hedges, doesn't struggle with the transition between his father and Lee. He doesn't like his father's death, but he knows he can't do anything about it -- his sensibility, which is combined with a deep and affecting emotional fragility, is very much at the core of Manchester by the Sea.
The movie becomes, for a while, a sort of battle of wills between these two, a touching and honest look at what it would be like for a middle-aged man to suddenly have to take on the responsibility of a 16-year-old old boy.
But then there is the other thing -- the thing that Manchester by the Sea wisely keeps a secret for quite a while, the thing that turned Lee into the kind of guy who will randomly punch people. Patrick knows about it. Everyone in town knows about it, and that includes Lee's former wife Randi (Michelle Williams), who he sees from time to time. The incident is rarely discussed, but weighs on the rest of the film as it weighs on Lee's life.
As he struggles with his new responsibilities and his failure at breaking free from the past, he forms a deep connection with Patrick, but the film never stoops to the simplicity of giving them all a pat ending. There are no endings in Manchester by the Sea, not for anyone -- toward the end of the movie, an old man tells Lee the story of how the man's father took off on a tuna boat one day in 1958 and never came back. No one knows what happened.
There is no trace of self-pity in the story; it is not maudlin. It just is. One day, Lee may be able to tell his own story that way: It just happened. But not yet. The same goes for Patrick and Randi and everyone else affected by these enormous tragedies that, Manchester by the Sea at least hints, aren't really all that enormous, but no less powerful for being quotidian. They are all around us if we just notice them, and they will happen, in one way or another, to all of us. Every closed door has its own story to tell.
When they happen, we may be, for a time -- maybe forever -- as beaten down and hopeless as Lee. Or we might be as youthfully optimistic as Patrick. Or as helpful and stalwart as George. But somehow, likely with the help of others -- and sometimes despite their best intentions -- we'll get through it. That's what we do.
That's why the tides keep going in and coming out. Why the seagulls flock. Why the snow falls. It happens. We can't stop it from happening.
And so it goes.
In that beauty, that rhythm, that quiet assurance that even if we're not at all "OK," we really are all going to be all right in the end, Manchester by the Sea achieves a beauty that is both visual (how could it not be with this setting) and emotional. It's as honest, as deep, as thoughtful an examination of grief, loss and pain as you'll ever see. It's tempting to call Manchester by the Sea a working-class Ordinary People, but it's very different than that upper-class study of polite behavior in the midst of chaos, though it shares many of the same observations: hopeful ones in the midst of the sorrow, and sorrowful ones in the midst of loveliness.
Manchester by the Sea doesn't want to try to find answers, because they are as elusive as the cold wind that buffet the coast. The winds will never stop, nor will the grief -- but they will quiet down from time to time, and it's then that we can see there's still something beautiful all around us.
Viewed Dec. 1, 2016 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks