Manchester by the Sea, a film about an emotionally reclusive man coming to terms with the death of his brother and being named guardian of his nephew, doesn’t feel that fresh. The mechanics of the story are well worn and there is nothing ground-breaking presented. However, Kenneth Lonergan should be commended on not giving the characters unrealistic turnarounds or showering the audience in fairy tale catharsis, but rather allowing gradual change and small progress to be made.
This is Lee Chandler’s (played by Casey Affleck) story, a man with a guilty conscience, whose life has been completely flipped around by one harrowing event. We learn this in a series of flashbacks as we progress through the timeline of Lee’s brother’s death. This death has resulted in Lee being named guardian of his nephew, Patrick (played by Lucas Hedges). It is in coming to terms with this that we see Lee progress as a person, but not too far as he still can’t shift the guilt he feels as a result of that one event in the past.
We find that Lee is quick in response and anger, a result of the weight of the past indiscretion and too much drinking, a solace that brings no joy or healing. The responsibility of guardianship seems to pull Lee towards a path that might eventually lead him out of the darkness he has fallen into. The expertise in not giving him a complete life turn around allows the film to resonate more realistically.
The acting is commendable with some standouts. I am not in agreement with most people and don’t think Casey Affleck’s performance is amazing. It is solid but it doesn’t feel like a tour de force. I thought Lucas Hedges was wonderful as a son dealing with his father’s death in a teenage-like manner, on the surface seemingly unaffected but hurting once the veneer is pulled away. The standout is Michelle Williams who has very limited screen time but brings real emotional gravity to every scene, something that Affleck misses mostly. Her main scene is the emotional peak of the film and it is entirely carried by her.
There is some nice imagery that plays out throughout the film with a recurring motif of fishing and the water, which represents Lee’s brother’s legacy in a way. It is a small battle over a boat between Lee and Patrick that pits sentimentality and practicality against one another, with sentimentality ultimately winning. It is a pleasing moment in a film with, intentionally, very few.