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Manchester by the Sea

By , 2016-12-12

Lee Chandler, the protagonist of Manchester by the Sea, has the burr of a Boston-accent and the hunch of a lightweight boxer. He is a Quincy janitor, played by Casey Affleck  as a dour, taciturn and depressive loner, one of those people whose unhappy personality keeps others at bay. He harbors a lot of anger although most of the time it just simmers. You avoid him rather than understand him, and it’s a testament to Affleck’s performance that the reticent Lee does not seem to require the back story of a fictional character. Like a real person, he is, well, just that way. The death of his beloved older brother Joe, saddles Lee with the unexpected responsibility of raising Joe's only son 16-year old Patrick (Lucas Hedges).

Lee reluctantly returns to the Cape Ann hometown of the title to look after funeral arrangements and assume sole guardianship of Patrick. Frequent flashbacks fill in the horrendous details of his past life. This masterful film takes its sweet time revealing the nature of the disaster that befell him. When we finally find out what it was, we recoil at the realization that it's even worse than we imagined, then understand why Lee resists the role his late brother assigned to him. The movie acknowledges that if, in fact, Joe made him Patrick's guardian hoping to pull him out of his funk or somehow redeem him (and the film itself never makes this clear), then it was a bad call. Everyone, Lee included, seems to realize this. Nevertheless, despite his limitations, out of loyalty to Joe, he tries the best he can. He navigates the unfamiliar, often infuriating experience of parenting a teenage boy, serving as grumbling chauffeur for Patrick's action-packed social calendar (he has a terrible rock band, plays on a hockey team, and bounces between two girlfriends).

Manchester by the Sea is by playwright turned filmmaker Kenneth Lonergan whose small and infrequent dramas (e.g., the excellent 2000 You Can Count on Me which made stars of Mark Ruffalo and Laura Linney) are earning him a reputation as an auteur who is thoughtful rather than prolific. Here he seamlessly integrates the back story into the current action, deftly alternating between the light-hearted good-old boy Lee used to be and the broken man of the present. In those scenes of a happier past, it is Michelle Williams who shines as Lee’s mouthy young wife, Randi, offering her usual pitch-perfect performance as a tough-talking, deep-feeling working-class woman. Like only the very-best actresses, she can portray any character from Marilyn Monroe (2011) to the drab Alma who looks out her kitchen window one day and catches her husband romantically kissing another man (Brokeback Mountain, 2005). It says a lot about her as an artist that she accepts roles (and risks) on small meaningful dramas. Williams obviously has integrity along with her considerable talent. Lucas Hedges movingly portrays Lee’s likable 16-year old nephew Patrick, successfully alternating between the boy’s randy adolescent energy and his anguish over his father’s death. Another admirable thing about Manchester by the Sea is that Hedges’ performance is often very funny as Lonergan surprisingly punctuates the darkness of the story with some humor.

Typical of current movies, Manchester by the Sea is ambiguous. There is some resolution but banish any thought of a sentimental, Hollywood ending full of relationships repaired, lessons learned and futures secured. Lonergan never suggests Lee has conquered the past, nor that the next part will be obvious or easy. In a scene toward the end, Lee bumps into his former wife (Williams) on the street in Manchester and, in one of the year’s great scenes - exquisitely rendered by Williams and Affleck - she begins to recall their history, telling him he’s broken-hearted. Lee rebuffs her, saying of himself “You don’t understand. There’s nothing there”

Manchester by the Sea is a sad film but not a downer, mostly because Lonergan keeps a firm grip on his characters, none of whom feel defined by their pain. Patrick may have just lost his father, but he remains a wise-ass 16-year-old, and his scenes with Lee have a hilarious bristle to them. And, at the end, we feel that Lee may yet forgive himself. Lonergan seems to be saying that we are fumbling, flawed creatures, ill-equipped to deal with life’s unexpected setbacks and tragedies, but we try to love each other the best we can. That, really, is the best we can hope for.

If you want superficial, CGI-fed entertainment, Manchester by the Sea will disappoint. This is not cinematic fast food, it is a banquet for those who truly love movies and crave a deeper experience. Look for many award nominations. For example, Affleck’s measured performance in the lead is too outstanding and too at the center of everything to escape recognition, as is Michelle Williams’s supporting role and Lonergan’s direction.

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