Home is where the heart is, but for Boston area janitor Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) it’s where the heartbreak is. Withdrawn into a dreary and meager existence, he spends his days repairing tubs and toilets, listening to tenants bitch (and in one case talk on the phone about doing him), and shoveling snow at the apartment building where he lives in a dark basement with hardly any furniture and apparently one window. He spends his nights drinking himself stupid—so stupid he gets into the occasional brawl. He gets some positive attention here and there but never responds or engages. He’s dead inside for reasons that aren’t immediately clear.
Flashbacks show that Lee wasn’t always broken. He was married with three children. He had a home. He had friends and a social life. He spent a lot of time with his only sibling, older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler), and his nephew, Joe’s only kid Patrick (Ben O’Brien), on Joe’s boat. Joe’s wife, Elise (Gretchen Mol) is no longer in the picture. Neither is Lee’s, Randi (Michelle Williams).
One cold morning, a friend (C.J. Wilson) calls Lee to inform him that Joe had another heart attack. Joe dies before Lee gets to the hospital in his hometown, Manchester-by-the-Sea, about an hour up the coast from him. He has to tell Patrick (Lucas Hedges), who’s now in high school. Lee sticks around to help put together the funeral and look after his nephew. He gets pulled into a parental role, carting Patrick to hockey events and band —a rock band, not high school marching band—practice, and counseling him on matters of dating and sex. Both are surprised when Joe’s lawyer (Josh Hamilton) reveals his will: he made provisions for Lee to serve as Patrick’s guardian. Too bad Joe never said anything to Lee.
Manchester by the Sea has some truly depressing scenes. The backstory of what brought Lee to his current state is horrible—it’s no wonder he doesn’t want to be anyone’s guardian. One excruciating exchange between Randi and Lee turned on the waterworks—mine (and it takes some doing to get me to cry). Director and writer Kenneth Lonergan is focused on loss, forgiveness, and the complicated nature of taking care of one’s own in tough times. Jody Lee Lipes’s cinematography nicely translates that focus, giving the film its dreary, colorless look.
All that said, Manchester by the Sea really isn’t a depressing movie. Much of the dialogue between Lee and Patrick is amusing: snarky and smartass, they often end up arguing. They’re all macho but obviously have a bond they don’t ever bring up; instead, it shows subtly when they talk about Joe or the boat. Lonergan has a wonderfully dry sense of humor that makes this one more than melodrama. The frozen ground is too hard to dig, so Joe has to stay in a freezer until spring. Patrick tries hard to get into a bandmate’s (Anna Baryshnikov) pants, while her mother (Heather Burns) develops a thing for Lee. Patrick gets in touch with his mother, who to his disdain has become a born again Christian. Plus, her fiancé is played by Matthew Broderick. Nice touch!
Manchester by the Sea has a similar vibe as, say, a Smiths song. I like that. The rather abrupt ending doesn’t resolve much, which is something I’ve heard a few people complain about. It didn’t bother me.
(Landmark Century) B+