They say we all grieve in different ways, but many of the characters in Manchester by the Sea can’t seem to escape their cycle of hostility and mourning.
The fragile dynamics of a suburban Massachusetts family defined by tragedy and regret are explored with heartfelt authenticity in this superbly acted drama from director Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count on Me) that’s much more than a simple therapy session.
It centers on Lee (Casey Affleck), a handyman at a Boston apartment complex whose past troubles aren’t clear when he’s summoned to a nearby hospital, where his brother (Kyle Chandler) is already dead from congestive heart failure.
The tragedy puts Lee temporarily in charge of Patrick (Lucas Hedges), an obstinate teenager whose behavior has become erratic since the fishing excursions he took with Lee years ago. Their relationship now is filled with unspoken animosity, not necessarily toward each other.
As we put the pieces together from the chronologically fractured narrative, some skeletons reveal themselves, such as the details behind Lee’s previous marriage to a woman (Michelle Williams) struggling to cope with her own issues. And Patrick’s mother (Gretchen Mol) awkwardly wants to remain in the picture.
As the title suggests (the film is named after a beachfront village northeast of the city), Lonergan meticulously conveys the wintry New England setting not only through Boston accents and the occasional Red Sox baseball cap, but through evocative visual details peppered throughout the working-class milieu.
Meanwhile, his deliberately paced screenplay rewards patience as it carefully balances humor and pathos in ways that don’t feel forced or manipulative. Lee’s plight is relentlessly sad, and fraught with self-inflicted strife, but never without a glimmer of hope.
It helps that Affleck (Gone Baby Gone) delivers a terrific portrayal that’s brooding and understated yet subtly expressive, capturing a man haunted by his past and whose withdrawn emotions signal a lingering guilt and begrudging obligation to those around him. The supporting performances likewise add depth and conviction.
Manchester by the Sea covers familiar thematic territory but conveys a genuine bittersweet poignancy that sidesteps clichés of family dysfunction and healing. Such catharsis doesn’t come without a chance at redemption, however, which should resonate with moviegoers well beyond its distinct locale.