Sixteen years ago, Kenneth Lonergan announced his presence with the Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize winner “You Can Count on Me,” a delicate, nuanced story of siblinghood anchored by two incredible performances from Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo, and a script that conveyed lived-in reality more than Hollywood artifice. Lonergan returned to Park City this year for the world premiere of “Manchester by the Sea,” another film about, at least in part, how connections between family members shape and define our lives. Anchored by a breathtaking performance from Casey Affleck, “Manchester by the Sea” is a portrait of loss and compassion, how it is often those we know who pull us out of our darkest places, and how that journey to normalcy isn’t a straight line but a series of daily events. Sundance often produces overreactions, but I have to admit that I was physically rattled when “Manchester by the Sea” was over, shaken both by the emotional honesty of what I just saw and the quality of the film itself.
Lee Chandler (Affleck) is a handyman in Boston. In a series of wonderful character-and-setting-defining scenes, we see Lee go about his job, talking to residents and his boss. He has a small, nondescript apartment. He is the kind of guy more likely to get into a fight at the bar than go home with the girl who is clearly flirting with him. One day, Lee gets a call. His brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) is dead, stricken by congestive heart failure at a criminally young age. As Lee is barely keeping it together at the hospital, Lonergan flashes back to the day his family found out about the disease, and that Joe had five or ten years to live. The structure will be employed throughout “Manchester,” although it doesn’t feel quite right to call them flashbacks. They are woven so seamlessly into the narrative fabric of Lonergan’s script that they feel like branches on a tree—we go out to them for a bit and then come back to the main story to which they are attached.
Lee has to settle Joe’s estate and deal with his last will and testament. Joe has a son named Patrick (Lucas Hedges), and Lee has to tell him the news. Patrick’s mother (Gretchen Mol) was basically kicked out of their lives years earlier because of her problem with alcoholism. And we learn that Lee has an ex-wife named Randi (Michelle Williams) and enough tragedy in his background that people refer to him as “the Lee Chandler” when they see him back in Manchester. In an extended sequence intercut with Lee learning that Joe left guardianship of Patrick to him (and moving expenses to relocate from Boston), we learn more about Lee’s background and the night that changed his life forever. We discover why Lee often looks like a shell of a man, a good person literally weighed down by so much grief that he finds it hard to interact with other people.
Kenneth Lonergan’s script for “Manchester by the Sea” is a masterpiece of delicate, nuanced, lived-in scenes. It contains moments and diversions that might seem like filler to other filmmakers but that Lonergan uses to ground these people, both in a setting that never feels like artifice and an emotional reality that resonates. We spend a lot of time getting to know Patrick, meeting his girlfriends (yes, he has two), seeing him in band practice, and really just watching him interact with an uncle he’s clearly always loved but who he knows may not have the skill set or emotional ability to take care of him. Interestingly, teenage Patrick has a much more well-rounded life than Lee does back in Boston and so the implication that he may have to move with his uncle upsets him greatly. But the fact is that Lee emotionally, and almost physically, can’t live in Manchester. There are too many ghosts.
As Patrick, Lucas Hedges gives one of those performances that Sundance headline writers like to call breakthrough, conveying the reality of a teenager who has known for most of his life that his father was going to die. The resulting grief comes organically, never feeling like the product of a writer. Nothing in “Manchester by the Sea” feels forced to fit a theme or manipulative purpose; it is all drawn from the characters and the place they have lived all their lives. Lonergan deftly fills in the details of this world, one in which religion, beer, and sports are just parts of life. These are not overly religious people, but there’s a crucifix in every house, and Lonergan occasionally uses classical music that sounds like it could be played on a church organ. People drink often in Manchester, and some succumb to the life-changing impact of the bottle. It’s just the way it is. These aren’t narrative constructs—they are details from a screenwriter who is a craftsman with character. It’s a cliché to say that our best characters often feel like they existed before the film began and that their stories will continue after it ends but it’s undeniably true here, and that’s by virtue of Lonergan’s masterful script and direction.
And then there’s Casey Affleck. His work in “Manchester by the Sea” fulfills the promise made by his excellent turn in “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.” Lee could have been an amalgamation of emotional tics, but Affleck goes so subtle with the performance that we don’t even fully understand the depth of Lee’s grief even when the film is over because he’s not the kind of guy who can articulate it in a typical movie way. Affleck doesn’t get big monologues to tell his story because a guy like Lee doesn’t give big monologues, and so the performance becomes a surprisingly physical one, and the actor masterfully allows us to feel this man’s pain through body language and what is not said more than anything else.
How do we process the unimaginable? While you read this, it is very likely that a father passed away from something similar to what kills Joe Chandler. Maybe his family knew it was coming. Maybe death struck unexpectedly. And yet life goes on for the people around him. New decisions have to be made; new realities come into play. But the world around them looks largely the same. Much like the water that Lonergan keeps returning to in “Manchester by the Sea,” it just keeps flowing.