Doesn’t life provide us with enough grief? Do we have to buy movie tickets to experience more of it on the big screen?
It’s an understandable sentiment . . . and completely wrong in the case of “Manchester by the Sea.”
Brilliantly written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan (“You Can Count on Me”) and featuring a major-league lead performance from the ever-surprising Casey Affleck, this riveting, soul-wrenching feature is about how we deal — or don’t — with grief.
Yeah, it’s heavy. It’s also unexpectedly funny, deeply moving and almost unbearably wise when it comes to the labyrinthine workings of the human heart.
We first encounter Lee Chandler (Affleck) on the job at a Boston-area apartment complex. In return for handyman chores — hauling trash, blowing out drains — he’s allowed to live in a monkish cellar room. Lee is a prickly sort who often rubs tenants the wrong way. At night he drinks until it’s time to instigate a barroom brawl.
Clearly, something’s eating at this guy.
When word arrives that Lee’s older brother, Joe, has died of a heart attack, he reluctantly returns to the Massachusetts fishing village of his youth to settle affairs. There Lee discovers that he has been named as the guardian of Joe’s 16-year-old son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges).
He’s totally unprepared.
Lonergan’s screenplay is a sort of psychological mystery that alternates scenes of Lee in the present — struggling with the horny teen for whom he is now responsible, encountering faces from his youth — with his troubled past, depicted in flashbacks that drift in and out without warning.
In these scenes from Lee’s earlier life we see him working a fishing boat with his brother (Kyle Chandler) and get glimpses of his home life with wife Randi (Michelle Williams) and three small kids.
He’s friendly, even borderline jolly.
Clearly something traumatic occurred between then and now.
Though desperate to return to his insular, anonymous life, Lee is trapped in Manchester. Patrick doesn’t want to leave his high school friends (especially his girlfriends. . . he’s cockily juggling two at the moment) and argues that he’s got a full social schedule and a rock band while Uncle Lee is only “a janitor in Quincy.”
It doesn’t help that when townspeople see our protagonist in the street they say things like, “That’s the Lee Chandler?” “The very one.”
What in heaven’s name went on here?
Lee briefly contemplates sending Patrick to his estranged mother (Gretchen Mol), but a brief visit to the substance-abusing woman and her fundamentalist new husband (Matthew Broderick) shows that she’s no more ready for the responsibility of parenthood than he is.
So he has no option but to tough it out.
A less challenging film would get all squishy-soft depicting the reluctant-but-ultimately-tender bonding of the moody adult and the now-parentless teen. Lonergan isn’t having any of that.
This relationship is a slow-motion battle, with the manipulative Patrick trying to get away with everything he can (he’s not above playing the orphan card) and Lee only slowly coming to the realization that he might have to set some grown-up boundaries.
Happily their give-and-take is often oddly amusing, as when Patrick tries to set up his brooding uncle with the single mom of the girl he’s
trying to seduce.
“This could be good for both of us,” the kid asserts with a wicked cynicism far beyond his years.
Shot during a winter in which the gray of the waves melds with the gray of the sky, “Manchester by the Sea” does finally reveal the source of Lee’s self-flagellating pain — and it’s a near-unbearable whopper.
But the film also dishes small, spirit-lifting epiphanies about old friendships and small-town kindnesses.
And late in the film — when Lee runs into his former wife Randi on the street and they evaluate where they’ve been and where they are now — the moment is suffused with a sad beauty that burrows deep into the viewer’s consciousness.
The players are excellent (Williams and Hedges are quietly spectacular as the ex-wife and the teen), but the film belongs to Affleck, an actor who often has tackled characters struggling beneath the mantle of guilt and/or loss.
Here, he takes all he has learned and creates a character who is simultaneously compelling and frightening, angry at the world but angrier at himself.
It’s very much a physical performance — Lee isn’t a big talker — and the upshot is devastating, a portrait of pain and self-imposed exile that has Oscar nomination written all over it.