Kenneth Lonergan’s third feature is, like its predecessors, a kind of moral tale—one whose form and tenor eschew the slightest hint of authorial moralizing. Lonergan’s locus of investment is, rather, character and place. This is a filmmaker who loves his characters—sometimes roughly, but always unconditionally. Every image in this film seems infused with an understanding of the characters’ backstory, and how that inevitably shapes who they are and the choices they make.
It’s thus appropriate that Manchester by the Sea is named for the town in which most of the action is set, a town that draws Lonergan’s protagonist unhappily back to his roots, and challenges him to assume a responsibility he doesn’t want, doesn’t feel he deserves, and doesn’t feel capable of fulfilling.
Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), an apartment block superintendent, seems damaged from the start. Before the inciting incident even occurs, a brilliantly arranged series of thumbnail portraits of Lee attending to testy tenants with plumbing problems transmit Lee’s emotional paralysis, abundant inner rage, and fundamental hopelessness. Lee is buried in grief over an event that Lonergan wisely withholds until later in the film. That probably doesn’t sound like a good time, but rest assured that Lonergan—and Affleck too—inject scene after scene with fascinating, well-observed behaviour and tremendous humour, creating situations that test Lee’s social skills to amusing result.
Manchester by the Sea’s story gets properly underway when Lee learns of the death of his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler), forcing Lee to return to his titular hometown, a working class New England fishing community. Joe was sick and the loss not entirely unexpected; what is unexpected is Joe’s wish that Lee become the legal guardian of Joe’s 16-year-old son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), since Patrick’s mother (Gretchen Mol), a woman with a history of addiction problems, has been out of the picture for many years. Lee loves Patrick but cannot understand why Joe would hoist Patrick upon him—going so far as to set up a fund to facilitate Lee’s move back to Manchester. The idea could seem almost perverse, since Manchester was the site of a terrible catastrophe in Lee’s life, one that would put anybody off parenting. Lonergan never makes it explicit why Joe made this choice, but as this sly, subtle, big-hearted story finds its way, Joe’s intentions seem to bear out in the resolution.
There’s so much to be said about Manchester by the Sea—and yet so little that you need to know before going into it. Affleck is wonderful, impeccably restrained and brimming with inner life. His co-stars—Michelle Williams among them—contribute to the film’s rich sense of place and of Lee’s fraught past. Every element of production, from clothes to set-dress, feels lived-in. The story might sometimes appear to ramble, yet Lonergan is so gifted with knowing when to get out of a scene, knowing when to take distance and allow action to unfold in real time, and knowing when to leave emotions alone so as to be felt, not forced.