OnScreen Review: 'Manchester by the Sea'

Ken Jones

OnScreen Chief Film Critic

It is no shocking revelation or massive spoiler to say that Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea is a film that is filled with grief and the process of grieving.  In the day since I saw it, it has sent me thinking about things as varied as writings by C.S. Lewis and Ernest Hemingway, and movies like Moonlight and Inside Out.  Grief is an emotion that we all deal with in our lives, but it is also an emotion that can be incredibly unappealing in a film, especially when so many people look to movies as escapes from reality and a way to unplug and turn off the brain.  Manchester by the Sea, though, is a film that challenges and pushes back against this notion, while challenging normal film conventions as well.

Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges are the two main stars of this film; Affleck as the distant, shut off uncle, Lee, working as a janitor in Quincy, Massachusetts and Hedges as the nephew, Patrick, he has to look after when his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) suddenly dies in his hometown of Manchester.  The moments surrounding Lee’s being informed of his brother’s death at the hospital are one of countless scenes that feel all-too-real in this film.  There is a numbness to his reaction at hearing the news that gives hints to his character, hints that are eventually confirmed later on through several flashbacks.

The way the film deploys the use of flashbacks is in a unique way, as actuals memories that Lee is experiencing in the moment.  As with how we actually experience memories, sometimes the memories are brief, sometimes they are more prolonged, but regardless of how long the memory is, we experience the entirety of them in just a brief moment in the present.  These flashbacks have a disorienting effect, though in a positive way.

Through these flashbacks, we see a different Lee, enjoying happier times with his brother and nephew fishing out on the water on his brother’s boat, and a happy family life with his wife, portrayed in her usual brilliance by Michelle Williams, and his three daughters.  We are also given insights into what has led to Lee being the legal guardian of Patrick, from a hospital diagnosis for Joe and glimpses of why Patrick’s mom (Gretchen Mol) is out of the picture.  They happen with more and more frequency as he spends more and more time in Manchester until we are filled in on Lee’s backstory, which has it own share of grief.

In fact, the film is as much about this processing of this previous tragedy as it is with the loss of Joe and how it impacts both Lee and Patrick, with Lee’s reluctance to stay in Machester pulling in one direction and Patrick’s desire to keep his dad’s fishing boat, stay close to his friends and his two girlfriends (who don’t know about each other), and stay in the only town he has called home pull him in the opposite direction.

The strength of the film is that every aspect of it feels real and genuine.  A stupid and hilarious argument about the merits of Star Trek as a classic pillar of modern entertainment springs out of Patrick and his friends sitting in his living room reminiscing about his dad.  It also nails how New Englanders, Massachusetts people in particular, talk to each other.  All of the characters are fully formed and come off as having full, real lives that we’re getting a glimpse into.

It’s a career-defining performance by Casey Affleck, whose reluctant, half-whisper way of talking is perfectly suited to the role of Lee.  When we first meet him, there is the impression that he shuts out much of the outside world and does not let people get close to him, either because he is incredibly shy and reserved or for some other reason.  We come to learn what those reasons are, and how he acts absolutely fits with his background.

Manchester by the Sea evoked many emotions, memories, and thoughts for me.  The moment Lee goes to see his brother’s body in the morgue stirred the emotions I felt in losing my grandparents over the last few years.  The film reminded me of a famous, and often misquoted, passage from Ernest Hemingways’s A Farewell to Arms that reads, “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.  But those that will not break it kills.  It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially.  If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.”  I was also thinking of books I had read that dealt with the topic of grief, and A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis came to mind.  In that, he writes, “For in grief nothing ‘stays put.’  One keeps on emerging from a phase, but it always recurs.  Round and round.  Everything repeats.  Am I going in circles, or dare I hope I am on a spiral?  But if a spiral, am I going up or down it?”

Lee is a person who has clearly been broken by the world in some way.  As a result of it, he is someone who is going in circles, and the return to Manchester caused the grief to recur with more frequency and intensity by being around familiar settings.  The question is which direction, if any, is he able to go in going forward with Patrick and is he one of those people who is able to be strong at the broken place?  And how does that square with the life of a sixteen year old kid?  In Manchester by the Sea, as in life, there is no easy answer.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars