Something terrible happened to Lee Chandler. When we first meet Lee he's working as a handyman/janitor in Quincy, Mass. His interactions with customers are cordial and sometimes confrontational. When he gets the news that his older brother has suffered a heart attack, he rushes to the hospital 90 minutes away. The first thing he asks the doctor isn't how his brother is doing, it's "Is he dead?"
Lee expects nothing but the worst from the world. He expected his brother to be dead just as he expects each day to be just like the last until he can finally die—but his brother left him something unexpected. Lee has been left guardianship of his 16-year old nephew, Patrick. It's the last thing Lee wants to do, but he has enough respect for his brother to give it a shot.
"Manchester by the Sea" isn't about Lee coming out of his shell. Whatever has happened to him has irreparably broken him so that the only thing he even attempts to feel is rage. This isn't a heartwarming crowd pleaser about a grinch's heart growing three sizes or a struggling man learning how to be a parent. "Manchester by the Sea" is about loss and how everyone deals with it differently, whether it's healthy or not.
Casey Affleck (who replaced Matt Damon fairly late in the process) gives the performance of his career, giving Lee such a resigned quality to the way he shuffles through life. A character like Lee could easily have come across as unlikable or exhausting to watch, but Affleck adds enough haunted life behind the eyes as to always be worth our sympathy and empathy. This should almost guarantee him an Oscar.
Lucas Hedges as Patrick is almost as astounding, coming at life from the opposite end of the spectrum. He has friends, a band, a supportive hockey coach and two girlfriends, but is at a very strange age to understand how to process this level of loss. Patrick wants to move on quickly from the situation and he tries to open up to Lee, but both are incapable of finding the right words to make the type of connection that they both need.
Just like "Moonlight" from earlier this year, "Manchester by the Sea" has moments of such uncommon power that the movie tends to affect you even more after the experience is over. As I left the theater, I felt Patrick and Lee inside my heart like they were family, wishing I could see if their story turns out OK in the end. The film gave me just enough to hope for a happy ending, but not enough to know whether one is remotely possible.
Kenneth Lonergan has crafted something remarkable here. "Manchester by the Sea" is a drama without speeches and dramatic overreaching. Everything from performances to cinematography, script and direction feels natural. The film feels like life being lived in front of our eyes without the pesky feeling of voyeurism. Instead, we're left feeling like something was gained from watching the film—something important. All the greatest pieces of art do that.
"Manchester by the Sea"
Dir. Kenneth Lonergan
Old Mill Stadium 16 & IMAX