Manchester by the Sea is a masterfully-crafted misdirect.
Judging from the trailers (or any of the marketing), it clearly presents itself a certain way and establishes certain audience expectations, namely that it will be an emotionally-taxing, grief-stricken journey that ultimately proves to be uplifting(ish) if not a little bitter sweet. And while those expectations are certainly met and the movie takes you to the emotional places you think it will take you, the journey it takes getting there is not what you’re expecting.
Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is a custodian/handyman living a secluded life in Boston. One day, he gets a call that his brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), has died, and Lee must return home to the eponymous Manchester-by-the-Sea to see to Joe’s funeral arrangements. While there, Lee learns that he’s been named the legal guardian of his now fatherless nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), which he believes he’s ill-suited for. The arrangement also presents the logistical problem of either uprooting Patrick’s life by moving him to Boston or uprooting Lee’s life with a permanent return to Manchester, where he’s forced to confront his troubled past.
His troubled past is presented in a series of flashbacks to when Joe was still alive and Lee was still married to Randi (Michelle Williams). In general, I think flashbacks are both overused and misused, and they’re surprisingly hard to do well (if you don’t believe me, read a handful of amateur screenplays…). So when flashbacks are so seamlessly woven into a narrative the way these are, and when they’re as substantive and illuminating as these are, it’s all the more impressive and remarkable. The flashbacks are presented as answers to narrative questions raised in the main story line. Sometimes that means an immediate answer to an immediate question – like when it flashes back to tell us that Joe had a rare heart condition, making his death not quite as sudden as we may have initially assumed. Sometimes that means more drawn-out answers to more nuanced questions – like how Lee went from a happily-married life in Manchester to a disgruntled life in a one-room basement apartment in Boston.
So while the story is centered around the fallout of a family tragedy, it’s not really the focus you might expect. Joe’s death is obviously the impetus of the story, but it’s – surprisingly – not much more than the impetus. Minus one or two scenes, Patrick actually seems pretty at peace with his father’s passing, and he doesn’t need much consolation. Lee doesn’t even seem all that concerned about how Patrick would fare with Lee as his guardian. Patrick’s already 16 and reasonably self-sufficient, and he doesn’t appear to need Lee to “raise him” or anything (mostly just to drive him to his girlfriend’s house). The places where you expect the most conflict and drama are fairly drama-less.
The drama is instead found in Lee’s homecoming and in his seemingly-inexplicable resistance to returning to Manchester (and, eventually, in his very explicable resistance to the same). Despite how it presents itself, it’s less a movie about dealing with the loss of a brother and father and more about coming home, confronting your past, and making peace with who you were and what you’ve done. It’s a movie about forgiveness, self- or otherwise. And if that sounds more tame than dealing with concrete loss (like losing a brother/father), I promise you that it’s not.
There’s a scene between Lee and his ex-wife towards the end that I’ve been referring to as “the scene” (because it’s featured heavily in the trailers, because it’s one of only four-ish scenes that Michele Williams appears in and yet it’s going to get her a fourth Oscar nomination, and because it’s the clearest manifestation of this forgiveness theme). There’s a distinction to be made between earned emotional moments and unearned emotional moments, and “the scene” is a textbook example of the former. Lonergan puts in work to get us here, and even if you hate the rest of the movie (not sure how you could…), the scene itself is worth the price of admission. In other years, I might call it the most moving scene of the year, but unfortunately for this movie, Moonlight came out this year.
In addition to the well-deserved praise heaped onto Michelle Williams (limited screen time aside), there have also been Oscar whispers for Casey Affleck since the film premiered at Sundance eleven months ago. With the huge caveat that I haven’t yet seen Andrew Garfield in Silence or Denzel Washington in Fences, I’m confident in calling Affleck’s performance the best I’ve seen from any actor this year: from the way his early scenes hint at buried rage and repressed heartbreak, to the way that these things are slowly brought to the surface, to the way that he ultimately succumbs to emotional vulnerability.
Newcomer Lucas Hedges does well with what he’s given, but as I alluded, his performance is far less demanding than Affleck’s or Williams’ just by the nature of his character. That actually might be for the best, because if Patty had been emotionally traumatized and really needed Lee’s care and support, then the overlap with Good Will Hunting would become excessive.
And while I know that Matt Damon’s producer role, the Massachusetts setting, and the presence of an Affleck at center stage all invite comparisons to Good Will Hunting (to say nothing of Hedges’ creepily-close resemblance to a young Matt Damon), it really does feel like a spiritual sequel in a lot of ways.
Both movies center around characters keeping themselves hidden from the world in order to protect themselves from heartbreak (by working as a janitor in Boston, no less). Both main characters project a rough exterior to mask immense pain (unsuccessfully, in the end). Both movies’ central relationship is an older mentor and younger mentee trying to get used to each other. Throw out the Will-is-a-genius-for-some-reason plot line and the audience-friendly love story, and Manchester By The Sea is basically Good Will Hunting from the point of view of Robin Williams’ character, a man trying to tend to the well-being of his young associate while also being crippled by his inability to move on from his past marriage.
I wonder if Sean Maguire would have any advice for Lee…