Manchester by the Sea

 

            The setting is Massachusetts in winter, and it seems it's always icy and frigid outside, and the characters are cold, as well.  But they have good reason.  They're all dealing with tragedy.  And not always well.

            Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is suffering from the kind of PTSD nobody should have to endure---no, he's not back from the war zone, but can you imagine worse than that?  He's living alone now, as a janitor/handyman in a small apartment house near Boston.  Low-key, anonymous, low stress.  Except when an unsuspecting tenant starts yelling at him.  Then he gives it right back.  Other than that, he's quiet and keeps to himself, except when he goes to a bar, drinks until he's loaded, and picks fights.  It's almost like he wants to get beat up, because then at least he'll feel something.

            He does have one bright spot in his life:  his brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), the one guy he'll listen to, and who's always been there for him.  But Joe dies of a heart condition, and then Lee finds out, to his great surprise, that he's the guardian for Joe's 16-year-old kid, Patrick (Lucas Hedges).  Lee doesn't want the job.  Oh, he likes the kid all right, but he thinks surely there must be some mistake.  Isn't there anybody else?  Well, it seems the only Uncle and Aunt have moved off to Minnesota, and Patrick doesn't want to go there.  Joe had a boat, and a friend, George (C.J. Wilson), who helped him run it, but George isn't even family.  Joe's wife was a drunk and they got divorced and nobody even knows where she is anymore.  So Lee is stuck in a nurturing role that he has a hard time accepting.  Patrick is a good kid, but has some anger issues of his own.  And he does not want to move away from everything and everybody he's known, and it's hard to blame him.  Something's got to give.

            Writer and Director Kenneth Lonergan is not afraid to give us pathos, and people dealing with it awkwardly.  He gives us background by flashbacks, but somehow it's seamless.  Sometimes the dialogue is suffused under a musical backdrop like opera, or Handel's Messiah (both the overture, more than once, and the solo “He Shall Feed His Flock”), or even a vocalization than can only be described as women humming:  a soprano and an alto, with harmonies that are not always expected.  Neither are the actions of the characters in this film always expected.  Patrick's Mom, Elise (Gretchen Mol), makes a brief re-appearance, seemingly together now, but her only attempt to re-connect with Patrick is beyond awkward.  Lee's ex, Randi (Michelle Williams), also makes a brief re-appearance, also seemingly together now, but her only attempt to re-connect with Lee is beyond pathos.  The chemistry between Lee and Patrick is undeniable, but they both have intimacy issues, which aren't helped by their angry grieving. 

            All in all, a high-impact, emotional film that feels terribly real.

 

Questions for Disussion:

1)                  When have you seen an unexpected event change life dramatically?

2)                  Can people who have not dealt well with addictions ever completely recover?

3)                  How do you cope with overwhelming guilt?

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association