Friday, December 16, 2016

Manchester by the Sea

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (Kenneth Lonergan, 2016)

The death of his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) prompts Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) to return to his hometown, but he intends to go back to Boston as soon as he can even though all that’s there for him is a handyman job. In MANCHESTER BY THE SEA, named after the town where he can hardly bear to be, Lee has funeral arrangements to tend to and, more importantly for the time being, needs to look after his sixteen-year-old nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) as his mother Elise (Gretchen Mol) has not been in the picture for years.

To Lee’s surprise his brother made him Patrick’s trustee and guardian. Although he loves his nephew, it’s a responsibility that Lee does not want, at least if it means coming back to live in Manchester-by-the-Sea again. The place is burdened with memories of life before his divorce from Randi (Michelle Williams) and the looks and reactions from those who see him around. Patrick understandably resists the idea of being uprooted. Lee assumes the caretaker role in the meantime while trying to find a solution that will be satisfactory for both of them in the long run.

Heartbroken and despairing, Lee refuses to forgive himself for the tragedy in his life. It becomes clear that he had a valid reason for moving away, but in doing so he also separates himself from the family support system that he needs. His small and dim basement apartment suggests that he has done the closest thing to burying himself. If it wasn’t for Joe pushing him to purchase some furniture, his living arrangement would be as spartan as a cell, which is what Lee acts as if he deserves. Affleck does extraordinary work occupying a character who hates himself on a deep level yet is compelled to honor the obligations he feels he owes and those bestowed upon him. Lee’s pain is genuine, and he accepts it as his cross to bear rather than something for him to perform. By not seeking empathy in his portrayal, Affleck attracts it.

Grief runs through MANCHESTER BY THE SEA like a fault, something abrasive grinding away that is ever present yet unexpected when the energy from it explodes. Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan explores the strain of life after death on the living with great sensitivity for how the sense of loss can emerge and how people deal with it. Grief can strike from encountering something innocuous or without any prompting whatsoever. It takes the form of outbursts and self-inflicted damage. The individualized nature of grief also means that there’s no single answer for easing it. Lee and Patrick’s interactions in the wake of Joe’s death are far from perfect, but there’s beauty in how they fumble their way through a difficult situation together.

Although MANCHESTER BY THE SEA can be profoundly sad, it features a fair share of humor. Lonergan recognizes that grieving isn’t constant wailing but pushing through the days and returning to routines. Laughter is a part of that, and the film finds a lot funny in the little ways people may try to distract from what makes them uncomfortable and the sarcasm that creeps into conversations.

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA opens with Lee, Joe, and a young Patrick out fishing. Lee asks the kid who he’d pick to be with if he could only have his uncle or his dad with him on an island. It’s a warm scene with him teasing the boy when he naturally picks his father. As circumstances play out, neither Lee nor Patrick will really have a choice in the matter. The film closes with Lee and Patrick on that same boat. It’s not what either would want, but they’ll make the best of it that they can.

Grade: A

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