“Manchester by the Sea” defies description in a really, really good way. It’s not flashy or formulaic in the way some fish-out-of-water stories are. Instead, the story of a quietly suffering man who gets another wrench thrown into his life when his brother dies captures better than any other film I’ve seen what real life is like.
Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) works hard as a janitor/handyman for a group of apartment buildings where he fixes leaks and unclogs toilets by day and gets drunk by night, picking random fights for no apparent reason. Lee doesn’t do communication, not even the smallest of small talk. Only later in the film, through heartbreaking flashbacks, do we begin to understand the reason for and the depth of Lee’s suffering. His brother, Joe’s (Kyle Chandler), death forces him back to the hometown he fled years earlier.
What Lee doesn’t know is that Joe has named him guardian to his 16-year-old nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Barely able to keep himself together, Lee can’t figure how he can possibly add a teenage boy into his life. Besides, being home brings past hurts to the surface and Lee has to deal with people whispering, “That’s Lee Chandler?” Awkwardly, he makes contact with his ex-wife, Randi (Michelle Williams), to invite her to the funeral. Lee’s lack of people skills is obvious in the stilted almost-conversation they have.
The performances in this film are Oscar-worthy. Casey Affleck continues to prove that his acting becomes better and better with each new film. He captures the mumbling, people-shy Lee so well that you only see the character, never the actor. Michelle Williams as Randi has only a couple of scenes but she conveys the emotion of her character superbly. In less talented hands, these characters may have descended into melodrama, but Affleck and Williams keep the film real.
What I love about the film is that it stays away from offering easy, pat answers to the reality of grief. Lee realizes he can’t properly raise a teenager in his broken state but he takes the time to get to know Patrick. He tries his best, having little conversations as he drives Patrick (who doesn’t have a driver’s license) to his hockey practices and girlfriend’s house.
“Manchester by the Sea” is not a perfect film relying a little too much on the F-word. Also, Patrick’s hooking up with his two girlfriends flies in the face of saving sex for marriage. All the same, the way Lee deals with the family dysfunction, attempting to work his way through it with whatever love and grace he can muster, rings so true to life. Mercy is gifted and received, forgiveness is offered and accepted, especially in a scene late in the film when Lee bumps into Randi on the street and she asks for a moment of his time.
Life is a journey we’re going to be on until we die and go to God. “Manchester by the Sea” glimpses only a part of Lee’s journey, a part of Patrick’s journey, and a part of Randi’s journey. How their journeys continue after the credits is left to our imagination. Maybe by contemplating the little of their journey we’ve witnessed, we might gain some inspiration on how to continue our own journey of life, and learn how to accept and be open to love, mercy, forgiveness, and redemption.