There are some heartbreaks that become impossible to mend. Some hurts impossible to heal. To say that the film Manchester by the Sea explores this theme is only a small part of the emotional complexity of this excellent film.
We follow the film’s main character, Lee Chambers, played by Casey Affleck, as we witness him at his job as a property super and handyman in a dreary Boston winter: shoveling snow, fixing plumbing, avoiding the attempts at small talk and connection from the people around him, called out for being rude, picking fights with strangers in bars. With minimal dialogue, Affleck portrays a man who keeps himself walled off from everything around him, for reasons yet to be revealed.
As the story progresses, Chambers receives a phone call while shoveling snow and then races to Manchester by the Sea, where his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) is in a hospital bed with a heart attack caused by a chronic heart condition. Joe dies and Lee has to stay to make arrangements and care for Joe’s sixteen-year-old-son Patrick (Lucas Hedges) whose alcoholic mother no longer lives in Manchester. When Joe’s will is read and Lee is named Patrick’s guardian with provisions for him to move back to his hometown, he objects for reasons we don’t yet understand.
The story remains fully grounded in the present moment family stories of love, loyalty, grief (and teenage drama) while slowly revealing Lee’s past as well as the meaningful relationships among the various family members. In the moment when we discover why Lee left, most of the theater was in tears.
Manchester by the Sea beautifully expresses what we are not quite able to speak aloud, yet what gets carried in the heart.
We see this in writer and director Kenneth Lonergan’s dialogue as well as the compelling and truthful performances of the actors portraying people negotiating loss and love and seeking for a resolution that may not be available. There is a scene between Lee and his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams) that expresses this beyond words.
Before you think the movie is filled with nothing but sorrow, there are moments of laughter that demonstrate the humor of everyday life, particularly in the relationships between brothers, or uncles and nephews, between family and friends close and estranged.
Through the expressive cinematography by Jody Lee Lipes, the community and landscape Manchester by the Sea becomes a character that serves as a beautiful foil for the characters and the story. From winding roads, ice hockey rinks, fishing boats, the marina, the homes, and the snow, we feel the sense of place where the Chandler family members live their lives.
It’s not surprising that Massachusetts is the setting for this story as Boston area natives and Manchester by the Sea producers Matt Damon and John Krasinski brought the idea of the story to playwright and screenwriter Kenneth Lonergan. Lonergan is known for films including Margaret, You Can Count on Me, and Gangs of New York and plays including This is Our Youth and Lobby Hero. Damon and Krasinski originally planned to direct and star in the film before scheduling conflicts led to writer Lonergan being encouraged to direct and Matt Damon giving another Boston area native Casey Affleck the starring role. All good choices. The buzz around the film suggests multiple Oscar nominations.
This favorite of the Sundance Film Festival (where it premiered) has played on the international film fest circuit before its general release November 18. See it. Bring tissues.
For more information, visit http://manchesterbytheseathemovie.com.