Manchester By the Sea
4 out of 4 stars
By Bayard Lewis
With Oscar season culminating this month, one of the films up for 6 Academy Awards was sadly missed in the theaters by the average American moviegoer. “Manchester By the Sea” is a dramatic masterpiece that provides a canvas to examine some of the most difficult moments of the human experience. Death, separation, guilt, and grief are explored through the eyes of Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), a working man who has chosen a life away from his family.
Lee’s life is devoid of joy and he does handyman work for an apartment complex with a matter-of-factness that limits his interpersonal connections. When a woman spills beer on him intentionally at a bar to break the ice and introduce herself, he brushes off the possibility of having an extended interaction with her. We see glimpses into the beauty of everyday life in the moments of shoveling snow and tossing colorful items into a dumpster that breaks the bleakness of winter.
When Lee’s older Joe (Kyle Chandler) brother suffers a heart attack, he leaves for Manchester, Massachusetts, but he’s unable to say goodbye to him. In the morgue Lee says farewell in his own way. There is something odd about how he seems to be holding a tremendous of amount of pain beneath the surface. In his brother’s will, Lee learns that his brother secretly made him the guardian of his teenage son, which doesn’t seem extreme at first, but eventually Lee’s current life shows him emotionally unfit to be a father figure.
Lee must juggle the ramifications of his brother’s sudden passing by being a temporary guardian while legal matters are worked out. He comes into contact with his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams) at the funeral and the tiniest expressions on Affleck’s face signal that he is creating an inner world for the character. We see their personal transformations over time and Randi has moved on, but her trauma comes to the surface when she tries desperately to connect with Lee. Williams crafts a believable mother, wife, and friend who opens deep emotional wounds to try and comfort her former husband.
The tragic past surrounding Lee’s family is gradually revealed through a series of flashbacks that seem cut in time to take the audience back while he is daydreaming about these memories. He was a father to two girls and deeply loved his wife. He had a great relationship with his nephew and was involved in his adventures up until his family situation changed.
Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan deeply explores tragedy, but he also plants seeds of hope within a script that should stimulate both sadness and compassion for patient viewers. A story is revealed that juxtaposes how two people have coped with loss and a recognition that eventually we all must deal with death in our own way. It’s one of the best difficult films to watch I’ve seen in my lifetime. Affleck and Williams’ performances are landmarks in their career and powerful enough that their pain is our pain.