Manchester by the Sea

This year’s Sundance slate is positively jam-packed with tales of family tragedy, from Other People to The Hollars to The Fundamentals of Caring to Hunt for the Wilderpeople. But grief has rarely been explored as deeply and as beautifully, at Sundance or elsewhere, as in Kenneth Lonergan‘s Manchester by the Sea. This film wrecked me, to the point that I started crying all over again while working on this very review.

Casey Affleck, giving a career-best performance in a career-best role, is the devastating heart of this exquisitely wrought drama. Surrounding him are a rock-solid cast that also includes Kyle ChandlerLucas HedgesMichelle Williams, and C.J. Wilson. Collectively, they’ve put together a film that I strongly suspect will turn out to be the very best of this year’s Sundance crop, at least in my personal estimation.

We first get to know Affleck’s Lee through brief glimpses of his mundane existence as a Boston handyman. He seems competent enough, but there’s something oddly closed-off about him. His boss scolds him for his unfriendly demeanor, his room is dingy and sparse, and his only real hobby seems to be drinking until he’s wasted enough to pick fights with strangers at bars. Then he gets a phone call, and everything and nothing changes at once. His brother, Joe (Chandler) has died of a heart condition, leaving his 16-year-old son Patrick (Hedges) in Lee’s care.

Lee drives up from Boston to Manchester-by-the-Sea to make the appropriate arrangements, and the rest of the film chronicles Lee and Patrick as they deal with their new reality and their mutual loss, while filling in some crucial blanks about the Chandler family history. Flashbacks arrive without warning, and disappear in an instant or flicker in and out for several minutes. It’s a trick of editing that approximates the way real memories arrive, unbidden and unwanted, in our own minds. Meanwhile, the present day continues to march forward, regardless of the pain or the joy that those old moments bring us.

Affleck is extraordinary as Lee. I know it’s too early in the year to call anything the “best of 2016,” so I’ll say only that I’d be very, very surprised if Affleck didn’t wind up on a bunch of “best performances of 2016” lists at the end of the year. He gets some big, dramatic moments here, of the sort that attracts awards attention, but the real brilliance of his performance lies in all the smaller moments. His movements are precise and sparse, suggesting a man who’s not so much living as he is surviving, and then only because he’s hasn’t yet gotten around to dying. He hunches his shoulders against the cold, and adopts the posture of a man who’s so used to the weight of the world on his shoulders, he can’t even muster up the energy to protest it anymore.

Whereas Lee has withdrawn from his surroundings, his nephew seems like his exact opposite. Patrick is a popular, outgoing type surrounded by tight-knit network of caring friends, supportive neighbors, concerned teachers, and affectionate girlfriends. The only thing he doesn’t have anymore is a guardian who wants him, and who’s actually equipped to care for him. To all the world, he looks like a healthy, happy-go-lucky kid taking a tragedy in stride. But Patrick’s grief is, in its own way, as private and unknowable as his uncle’s. A scene late in the film in which he nonchalantly picks up a stick just about crushed me. (You’ll understand why when you see the movie.)

It’s easy to imagine a version of this story that smooths over ugly, raw emotions in service of a happy ending, or, alternately, a version of this story that devolves into simple misery porn. Manchester by the Sea takes a more humane approach, guided by Lonergan’s deep empathy for his characters. The world around Lee may judge the way he reacts to the blows life has dealt him, or may not even realize what he’s dealing with in the first place. But Lonergan presents a portrait of grief that feels almost honest in its ugliness, because it feels truthful. Redemption and hope are hard to come by for these characters, but they’re apparently nearly as impossible to extinguish completely.

Manchester by the Sea‘s primary concern is Lee’s pain (and Patrick’s to a lesser extent), but Lonergan also has a keen eye for the strange societal rituals surrounding loss. The bereaved are obligated to go through the same motions as everyone else. And so the polite people of Manchester do their part by asking Lee how Patrick is doing, and Lee holds up his end of the bargain by responding that Patrick is “good” — as if a boy who’s just lost his father could ever really be “good.” It’s not that the people around the Chandlers are being insincere; it’s that everyday niceties are tremendously, laughably ill-equipped to handle something as heavy as grief. Good thing, then, that we’ve got movies like Manchester by the Sea to do what good manners can’t.

/Film rating: 10 out of 10

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