One should never assume to completely know a person’s story. We meet Lee Chandler, a janitor for a block of apartment buildings played by Casey Affleck, and the audience immediately assesses the various dead-end facets of his life. Lee’s days consist of shoveling snow, fixing pipes, arguing with tenants, and feeling generally down about himself.
This is how Manchester by the Sea, directed and written by Kenneth Lonergan, begins—with us perhaps assuming too much about Lee’s state of affairs. Then, one day, Lee gets a call. His brother, Joe Chandler, played by Kyle “Coach Taylor” Chandler, has passed away after an unsuccessful fight with a heart condition. Lee—and the audience—is dragged back into a life that he thought he had left behind, while simultaneously being pushed forward, as he scrapes together some semblance of a future for those around him.
Lee returns to his old home of Manchester-by-the-Sea, the scenic seaside Massachusetts town from which the movie takes its name, to take care of his sixteen-year-old nephew, Patrick, played by Lucas Hedges. Once there, Lee finds heartache seemingly around every corner of the town, whether it’s his estranged ex-wife, played by Michelle Williams, or simple physical reminders of by-gone and better times. As a series of flashbacks reveal, the past few years have been filled with death, tragedy, and substance abuse for Lee and his family, the specifics of which I’ll leave for you to find out. In spite of this, Lee must figure out how he will deal with his teenaged nephew.
The movie moves deftly between heated arguments and moments of icy coldness. The tension and chill can be felt in your head and your heart. A shared pain intensifies leads to several shouting matches between Lee and Patrick, often immediately solidifying into moments of sincere and gripping silence. Heat or the lack of it is a theme throughout the movie, whether it’s the cold storage of a body, Lee’s horrific scorched past, or days when it’s just plain too cold out and you can’t find the car.
Still yet, there are moments of endearing humor that keep you smiling. Patrick is at heart a teenage boy, with all the unsavory behavior in pursuit of teenage girls that one might expect, but also with an unmistakable ingratiating, but tortured quality. And Lee, a father figure of necessity, is unwilling to take on any of the sentimentality that comes with being a parent. Their duo is the one that drives the movie, even if they go kicking and screaming.
Yes, there is plenty of grief to be had. The movie is not an easy watch, and it finishes by admitting that some problems cannot be overcome, even when the ones we love call on us. But, what shines through in Manchester by the Sea are simple moments of warmth that break through it all and remind us to keep going.
— Ryan Fajardo