“Manchester by the Sea,” written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, is not a happy story, but, against all odds, it is a hopeful one.
When we meet Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) he is living his life as a reclusive, surly handyman at an apartment complex in Boston.
When he receives a call informing him that his brother (Kyle Chandler) has died after living with congestive heart failure for many years, which we learn through flashbacks.
When Lee arrives in Manchester-by-the-Sea to handle his brother’s affairs, he discovers he is meant to be the guardian of his teenage nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). It’s a task that Lee is resistant to not for lack of affection for his nephew, but a history yet to be revealed.
And I’ll remind you that his a spoiler-free zone, so the source of Lee’s grief will go unmentioned. I will say that it is ever-present in Mr. Affleck’s portrayal. It’s heavy at times, subtle at others, but it is always there. And it is an incredible performance to be sure, but the true strength of this movie is its screenplay, which of course came from its director, Kenneth Lonergan. The way this story is constructed, the dialogue, the use of flashbacks, all come together beautifully to tell a tragic tale of grief.
In light of legitimate questions around the diversity of films being represented at the Oscars it’s hard not to notice that this is another story from a white male perspective. What sets it apart in my mind is that although it’s never directly called out, this film seems keenly aware of the climate and the double-standards. In particular, the viewer (or this viewer at least) can’t help but think about how differently a scene where Lee is questioned and released at the local police station may have gone were he not a middle-class, white male. Again, it’s never called out, but it is there right alongside the personal tragedy.
Many people were emotionally gutted by this film. You need look no further than Twitter to see the absolute, post-“Manchester by the Sea” anguish. And I’m not belittling the suffering of these characters or those who had strong reactions to their stories. But for those of you who, like myself, may be seriously dreading this film let me just say this: There is humor, there is hope, there is light. Without those things, life would be unbearable and this movie would be unwatchable. With them, this movie serves as a reminder of the power, perseverance, but unpredictability of the human spirit.