*’Manchester by the Sea’ screens at the New York International Film festival in the Main Slate seciont and is the Centerpiece film at the Hampton International Film Festival
Reviewed By Lauren Humphries-Brooks
Manchester by the Sea is Kenneth Lonergan’s quietly devastating new drama, now showing at the New York Film Festival. While possessing all the hallmarks of a Hollywood melodrama, the film manages to transcend some (if not all) of its generic clichés through complex dialogue and characterization.
Casey Affleck is Lee Chandler, a janitor at a building complex in Boston, who lives a simple, almost mechanical life. He’s summoned home to Manchester-by-the-Sea, a Massachusetts fishing town where his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) and nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) still live. Joe has died of congestive heart failure and Lee is saddled with the arrangements for his brother’s funeral and looking after Patrick. As a final curveball, Joe had made Lee Patrick’s guardian, forcing Lee back to Manchester-by-the-Sea for a much longer stay than anticipated. Revelations about Lee’s past become known through intermittent flashbacks, exposing his reasons for departing the town in the first place.
Manchester by the Sea seeks to say many things, about family, depression, grief, and guilt. The ongoing effect of past mistakes is evident in the lives of each family member, both living and dead. Lee is enmeshed in a series of unfortunate decisions that have disastrous consequences, and he must live with both the guilt and the grief that those decisions cause. Affleck lends a haunting, hunted quality to the character – he not only appears incapable of meaningful human contact, he also doesn’t particularly want to be capable of it. Love has become something distant to him, something that causes him pain and that feeds into his consistent guilt, and so he rejects everything to do with it, including friendship. But he’s become responsible for another human life, one that he cannot abandon. He attempts to remain distant from Patrick but can’t quite accomplish it, and through this relationship begins to come to terms with his overarching guilt.
The comedy contained in Manchester by the Sea is its most notable and probably most divisive departure from common melodrama. Scenes of comic awkwardness seek to provide a humane touch to a story that would otherwise be too far steeped in grief and suffering to be supportable. Patrick is a sixteen-year-old boy, and deals with the loss of his father and the return of his once-favorite uncle by attempting to retain a degree of normalcy. His sarcastic asides to Lee give bite to the dialogue, and reinforce the inherent realism of the story. Patrick is not an archetypal boy suffering in the midst of grief, but a teenager with his own, often selfish concerns who has lost a beloved parent. He wants Lee to behave like his father without taking on the responsibilities of a parent, and Lee neither wants to play father nor can quite avoid it, leading to some of the film’s most believable and humorous moments.
The downfall of Manchester by the Sea is in its use of the female characters, all of which are functions of the starkly male narrative. Patrick has two girlfriends – one of whom he’s sleeping with, the other he’s trying to – and his explanation of these relationships to Lee provides a certain degree of connection between the two men, with women as the center of the exchange. Patrick’s mother Elise (Gretchen Mol) is a former alcoholic who abandoned her family, and she figures into the story solely as a point of contention between Lee and Patrick – Patrick wants to have connection to her, Lee remembers her abandonment of his nephew. Only Randi (Michelle Williams), Lee’s ex-wife, has claims to true characterization. A pivotal scene between her and Lee forms the film’s most perfect expression of love and loss, to a degree that makes one wish that the rest of the film could accomplish such feats of emotional connection. But Randi remains something of a mirage, a woman mostly seen in flashbacks and through the eyes of the suffering male. Each woman acts as a mother, a wife, or a sexual partner (or sometimes all three together), but never as a fully-fledged and complex character in her own right. They are the satellites of the central male narrative, not true participants in it.
It might be churlish to accuse Manchester by the Sea of such casual sexism, and it should be remarked that this element does not condemn the film as a whole. It’s an aesthetically beautiful film and an emotionally complex one, using its snow-covered New England locations to build an external complexity that mirrors the emotional landscape. The sound editing is likewise remarkable. Elegiac, ethereal music helps to elide over scenes of conversation and plot progression, allowing the images to speak more loudly than dialogue can. In fact, for all the film’s adoration of speech, much is about what is not said, the emotions and desires for which language is insufficient. The music allows these emotions to resonate without forcing verbal expression on the characters.
Manchester by the Sea is an interesting film, one that explores its characters without forcing total resolution on them. For this, it should be lauded. It has its weaknesses, and in some ways is very limited in its outlook, but in most places those do not outweigh its strengths. While far from perfect, it is not disappointing; while far from resolved, it leaves one with a sense of satisfaction. A good film, not a great one, but very often that is enough.
Lauren Humphries-Brooks: A writer and editor with two Master’s degrees in Creative Writing (University of Edinburgh) and Cinema Studies (NYU). Currently freelances as copy and content editor for Cobblestone Press and previously worked as an ESOL Writing Instructor for Hamilton College. She maintains her own website and writes freelance for sites including We Got This Covered, The News Hub, and Man I Love Films. (Twitter handle @)