Give them space. Respect their privacy. Let them mourn.
Such common responses to tragedy are consistently challenged by Kenneth Lonergan's harrowing new drama Manchester by the Sea. Instead of illuminating therapeutic ways for individuals to cope with trauma, the film propels heartbroken characters together, carving out a messy vision of collective reconciliation. Many frustrations and interruptions appear along the way, but life itself isn't so clean, so why should the grieving process be?
Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) has spent years avoiding the past. At the beginning of Manchester by the Sea, he lives in self-imposed exile on the outskirts of Boston, working at an apartment complex unclogging drains and shoveling snow. His hidden rage and deep resentment toward other people becomes apparent during a series of interactions with various tenants.
Upon receiving a phone call that his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has passed away from congestive heart failure, Lee returns home to the eponymous coastal city to take care of necessary family matters. These include general funeral arrangements and hospital bills, but also the care of his teenage nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). The resurgence of parental responsibility conjures up swirling flashbacks that pin Lee between memories of a guilt-ridden past and an uncertain future.
With each new scene, Lonergan carefully perforates our expectations of Lee's previous life, which includes a failed marriage to Randi (Michelle Williams). Small moments add up over time, their increasing magnitude measured by Lesley Barber's soulful score. Slowly, a rich tapestry of conflicting emotions and experiences fuse together. Lee's perspective acts as a starting point to examine how unaddressed pain can define the very fabric of family.
Surprisingly, Manchester by the Sea is also very funny, almost uncomfortably so at times. Its awkward and honest sense of humor comes from a place of stress, and it alleviates the simmering tension shared between relatives and close friends who don't know what to say, or have never been that good at communicating in the first place. Mishaps like forgetting where you parked the car or having your cell phone vibrate during a funeral become unexpected reminders of life's disheveled forward momentum.
Lonergan has dealt with similarly difficult themes before in previous films such as You Can Count on Me and Margaret. But Manchester by the Sea feels slightly more optimistic by comparison. Affleck and Williams deliver nuanced performances that continue to evolve during multiple emotional revolutions. Hedges' Patrick is a gangly force of competing hormones and desperation that consistently demands more of the adults around him.
Manchester by the Sea, which opens Friday, Dec. 2, isn't about the road to redemption, or whatever that means. Nearly all of its action pushes characters to be more present with those who need them most, in both times of happiness and extreme sadness. To wallow, avoid and deny is to decompose in a purgatory of one's own making. Lonergan's fidgety, often riotous film refuses to sit still and afford such a fate. It demands movement and conversation, no matter how uncomfortable or ill advised the process may be.
Lee, Patrick and Randi experience this furious current of change in different ways, but they are all inexplicably linked by time spent together. Absence from each other stings the most. Lonergan attempts to show why people were born to look after one another. Words such as parent, guardian and trustee are simply synonyms for the same complicated human investment that we all long for in some way.
Manchester by the Sea feels like a comprehensive recollection of moments these characters have chosen to forget, or perhaps misremember. This would explain all of the half-heard conversations, and flood of memories swirling around them like a foamy wake left by the family fishing boat. Each person becomes slightly more comfortable with inevitability of change, and embracing such ambiguity means understanding the difference between moving forward and saying "so long."