Movies so rarely get everything right that when a perfect film graces our screens, we should hail it as the miracle it is. La La Land is good. Arrival is good. Hell or High Water is good. Manchester by the Sea is great.
Its characters are three-dimensional people. The direction is crisp but gives the actors space. The camera work is the kind that’s so assured and purposely unspectacular it doesn’t receive accolades bigger, flashier pictures—like say, Arrival—receive.
But perhaps most wonderful of all is that Manchester by the Sea knows what it’s like to live through a rotten New England winter. It knows there’s snow and slop everywhere, that driving from Manchester to Quincy is a pain in the ass, that life doesn’t stop because Mother Nature dumped a foot of powder in your driveway (and on the street, and everywhere you need to be). It knows there’s a particular brand of Yankee stoicism the locals employ to get through the tough stuff, from bad weather to funeral arrangements to personal tragedy.
Lee Chandler (Affleck) has used that stoicism to the point of being inert. A broken man who works as an apartment building custodian in Quincy, he’s pulled back to his hometown of Manchester when his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) dies of congestive heart failure. Joe has a 16-year-old son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), and Lee is shocked and dismayed to learn he’s been made Patrick’s legal guardian.
Lee is the kind of person who wishes to have relationships with no one. He’s short with the tenants in his building. He doesn’t talk to people in bars (even women who try to chat him up). In fact, he’d rather punch a random stranger and go home than try to engage in any other kind of activity.
Because Manchester by the Sea unfolds with parallel narratives—one taking place in the present and one in the past—we see that Lee used to be a more approachable, even fun, person. Then something happened that tore his world in half, something from which he’s never recovered. (Whatever you think it may be, it’s probably worse than you’re imagining.) Lee’s solution is to try to shut everything out and carry on with grim perseverance.
But, because writer and director Kenneth Lonergan knows the world turns even when we wish it wouldn’t, Lee tries to take responsibility for Patrick, a sharp, popular fixture at his school and a starter on the hockey team. And that means Lee has to deal with all the people who know him, or have at least heard of him—variations of “Wait, that’s the Lee Chandler?” come out of at least three characters’ mouths—while also planning his brother’s funeral, planning for Patrick’s future, and dodging his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams, who makes the line “Could we ever have lunch?” the saddest thing you’ll hear at the movies this year).
Manchester by the Sea is filled with so much emotion that it can be hard to take. Those not pre-disposed to heavy drama should probably skip it. But Lonergan knows we New Englanders enjoy a heavy dose of humor to temper our suffering, and Lee and Patrick form an uneasy relationship based in gallows humor and ball-breaking that we can enjoy, too. (One gripe floating around the Internet is that Patrick doesn’t act like a kid who’s just lost his father. The people making those gripes don’t remember what it’s like to be 16.)
As Manchester by the Sea concludes, life indeed goes on, just not like we thought it would, or like Lee wants it to, and certainly not with all our loose ends tied prettily together. But it certainly is a beautiful journey.
MANCHESTER BY THE SEA
Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan
With Affleck, Williams, and Hedges