By the time Manchester by the Sea premiered at TIFF this September, it already had months worth of buzz, Oscar prognosticating, and stellar reviews. The film had played at Sundance in January, where critics immediately heaped praise upon star Casey Affleck’s performance. It’s sure to be an Oscar contender, they swore, or at the very least a critic’s darling like last year’s Carol. Nine months later, the film screened again, first at tiny industry festival Telluride, then at the massive film festival that is TIFF.
The film, by American writer and director Kenneth Lonergan, follows a Boston-area janitor and loner (Casey Affleck) as he returns to his hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea after his older brother (Kyle Chandler) dies of a heart condition, and tries to navigate the grieving process alongside his 16-year-old nephew (Lucas Hedges) and deal with his ex-wife (Michelle Williams).
Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is a janitor who lives alone in a tiny Boston apartment and spends his days working in the building dealing with clogged toilets, garbage disposals and leaky showers. He dislikes his job, surely, but most days slogs through with a quiet weariness, only occasionally giving a snarky reply to a tenant’s dumb requests. His lonely and repetitive life gets interrupted by a phone call, telling him his older brother is in the hospital after a heart attack. Lee drives back to their hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea, only a few hours away, and his brother Joe has already passed by the time he arrives. In flashback, we see that Joe had been diagnosed with a heart condition years earlier, and his life expectancy was significantly shortened.
Lee is the executor of Joe’s estate, and his life is suddenly taken over by the mundane realities of death. He has to pick up his nephew from hockey practice and tell him the news, make phone calls to estranged family members and lawyers, visit the mortician’s office and figure out what to do with Joe’s things. As anyone who has suffered a loss can tell you, this is an incredibly realistic look at morning and grief. Lee and his nephew (Patrick) don’t sob or throw themselves over a casket. They break in quiet little moments, but mostly soldier on through the boring and surreal process of planning a funeral and figuring out how to move forward. This is where the film shines to me – Patrick still goes to his band practice and makes out with one of his two girlfriends, and he and Lee bicker about what to do with Joe’s boat. Their chemistry is incredible, and the familial rapport between them, with their typical Boston man attitude, is charming and honest.
Where the film struggles are with Lee’s ex-wife, Randi, and the backstory of why he left town in the first place. The film hints early on that Lee left Manchester-by-the-Sea on bad terms, with many of the townsfolk instantly recognizing him and treating him like he’s infamous. Through flashbacks, triggered by a reunion with Randi, we see that Lee once lived in the town with Randi and their three kids. One night, Lee had friends over drinking and getting high until Randi threw them out at three in the morning. Lee walked across town to the convenience store and returned to find that his home had burned down with his three children inside, with firefighters only able to rescue Randi in time. Lee had forgotten to close the door to the fireplace. When the police tell him it was an accident and they won’t press charges, Lee grabs a gun off a cop and attempts to kill himself in the police station. When Lee and Randi bump into each other in town, after a brief phone call and her appearance at Joe’s funeral, Randi apologizes to Lee about how things had ended between them. She says that they were both hurting and she said awful things to him that she regrets. Lee is unable to hear her apologise and walks away, clearly unable to accept that he didn’t deserve the horrible treatment.
This scene and this story touch on the melodramatic. It stands in stark contrast to the grounded sensibilities of the rest of the film. Lonergan’s last film was Margaret, another critical darling that was in development hell for five years before finally getting released. That film thrived on the melodramatic, but Margaret centred on a precocious high school student who witnessed a trauma. Melodrama suits 17-seventeen-year-old New Yorkers who think they have the world figured out and are frustrated when things don’t go their way. It feels more out of place in an otherwise realistic film that revels in the quiet. While Lee (and now Patrick) try to continue on living a simple life in the face of tragedy, Lee’s family history feels so much more heightened and elevated than it should be. Joe dying of a heart condition and a family grappling to cope with an inevitable loss is one thing, but a coke-fueled bender by a small town fisherman leading to the death of his children is another altogether.
It’s Lee’s personal tragedy that sends Manchester by the Sea to its foregone conclusion: he is unable to cope with life in the town his children died in, despite everyone’s urging for him to stay and finish raising Patrick. Lee signs over custody to an old family friend and plans to return to Boston, where hopefully Patrick can visit. Their relationship improved significantly, but Lee’s self-loathing and regret outweighed it. He can’t move on, or won’t let himself move on. While many would expect the film to end with things tied up nicely – Lee and Patrick living together, becoming a strong yet unconventional family unit – life doesn’t work that way. They end up on a positive note, but not the happy ending one might expect.
Despite its subject matter, Manchester by the Sea is not a bleak film. There is real humour in there, from the accidentally overheard confession of one of Lee’s tenants that she’s “in love with my janitor,” to Patrick’s juggling of two girls and trying to set Lee up with one of the moms (to buy him time to get his girlfriend’s bra off, of course). There’s a good balance between the deep sadness and the laugh out loud moments, with the film never going too far into wacky family comedy territory and only that brief dive into overwrought drama.
The performances are incredible. Casey Affleck, of whom I’ve been a big fan for years, is perfect as Lee. He’s able to say a lot with his silences, and his understated performance is what gives Manchester by the Sea its power. Another actor could have brought more heaviness, more angst to the role, but Affleck’s weariness never feels dramatic – it just simply is. Teen actor Lucas Hedges bounces off Affleck well, and any young actor who can hold his own against a real talent is worth noting. He doesn’t feel like a child actor, where everything is capital-A Acting, but is still able to portray both the earnestness and the posturing of a teenager. Michelle Williams is good as always, and brings real emotion to a small part, but I still feel like Randi didn’t help the film as much as she should have. Kyle Chandler, Gretchen Mol and Matthew Broderick all do great work in minor roles, but this one is all about Casey Affleck. I don’t know if the Oscar prognosticators are right, but from here it’s hard to argue Affleck’s not worthy.