Led by Casey Affleck, Manchester-By-The-Sea had the potential to be the latest installment in the gritty Boston movie kick that Hollywood has been on over the last decade or so. Between The Departed, Gone Baby Gone, Mystic River, The Town, and most movies with Mark Walhburg including the recently released Patriots Day and The Fighter, there’s certainly been enough movies about Boston. But Manchester-By-The-Sea isn’t some excuse to let Casey Afflect chew the scenery with his accent. Rather it argues that there are some tragedies you just can’t recover from.
The film begins with a flashback where we see Lee Chandler (Affleck) on his brother Joe’s (Kyle Chandler) boat, playing around with his nephew Patrick. Their affection for one another is clear. It resumes with Lee’s life as a janitor in Quincy, MA when a phone call lures him back to his hometown of Manchester. Joe has died of a degenerative heart condition and needs his brother to tend to his funeral arrangements and take custody of the now 16 year old Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Lee, however, is reluctant to relocate back home after having left as the result of great tragedy involving his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams). As Lee settles in back in Manchester he confronts his past and writer-director Kenneth Lonnegan reveals the horrifying tragedy through a series of cleverly structured flashbacks.
Casey Affleck offers a deeply internal performance as Lee. He has no loud screaming matches or stirring speeches. Rather he mumbles or sarcastically quips his way through life. He exists—shoveling snow, fixing the plumbing, changing lightbulbs—with a world-weary numbness. He occasionally erupts out of his torpor by punching random strangers in bars. He rejects any attempts at reconciliation or forgiveness, especially in an especially devastating encounter with Randi. Michelle Williams is fantastic as the other half of this tragic couple. She’s believable as someone who was once deeply in love with Lee and someone who has tried to undergo her own healing. Lucas Hedges is the unsung hero of Manchester-By-The-Sea, as Patrick. He’s a relatable and understandable teenager mourning the death of his father. He shifts between happiness and sorrow. He’s also recognizably a teenager. He mouths off to his hockey coach, plays in a believably mediocre high school band, and is desperately trying to get laid by one of his two lady friends. He’s also functionally parentless. Lee is making the decisions about Patrick’s future, but barely seems present. Patrick’s mother is a recovering drug addict and after an awkward reunion, her boyfriend insists that Patrick not contact her again.
Besides the tragedy, Manchester-By-The-Sea is a very funny movie. It has a situational humor derived from the experiences of its characters and their everyday lives. There’s the dark humor of a family coping with the diagnosis of a terminal illness. There’s the way that Lee and Patrick banter back and forth as Lee insists on his way of doing things as Patrick calls him out for not considering his feelings. Lee sarcastically questions his nephew about whether he has actually managed to have sex with any woman and Lee responds, “I’m working on it.” After Lee attempts to pawn Patrick off on his brother’s best friend George, George stumbles through an answer about trying to get rid of his own children. There’s also an even darker thread of humor. As paramedics try to load Randi into an ambulance the stretcher gets stuck. In a moment of unfathomable tragedy, when the universe should cut her a break, the paramedics can’t get her in. After going to the funeral home and learning that they can’t bury Joe until the spring and learning that he’ll have to be kept in a freezer until then, Lee and Patrick can’t remember where they park. There’s no escaping the mundane cruelties of the universe, even in light of great tragedy.
Manchester By the Sea offers a few glimmers of hope, but they’re not much. Lee refuses to move back to Manchester, unable to overcome his grief. Yet, he secures Patrick’s future by convincing George to adopt him. Lee tells Patrick that he’s getting a new place to live in Boston, one with an extra room for a bed or futon. It’s the most that Lee is capable of—giving his nephew the chance to visit. He’s given Patrick a chance for his own life, more than he’ll allow for himself.