MANCHESTER BY THE SEA is the heavily critic-worshipped third film by writer-director Kenneth Lonergan (YOU CAN COUNT ON ME, MARGARET*). It’s a story about loss and family and people trying to salvage their fucked up lives. It’s not as devastating as some people make it sound, but also not as ultimately-uplifting or inspirational as maybe you would hope. It’ll probly make you tear up a few times and laugh a few times in its 2+ hours. It captures the ways family, friends and beer can bring you both solace and pain.
*[Please note that it is not one movie called YOU CAN COUNT ON ME, MARGARET. It is one movie called YOU CAN COUNT ON ME and then another totally separate one called MARGARET. And if I had written it as MARGARET, YOU CAN COUNT ON ME I would’ve had the same problem.]
*[Also please note that Lonergan wrote THE ADVENTURES OF ROCKY AND BULLWINKLE and an episode of the cartoon Doug, but it wouldn’t be appropriate to mention those at all because right now we are focusing on his directorial work.]
Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck, OUT OF THE FURNACE, TRIPLE 9) is an apartment handyman in Quincy, Massachusetts, City of Presidents. We see him making his rounds, fixing things, responding to work orders, unplugging a toilet, etc. He’s clearly good at his job, but he’s also on the chopping block for sometimes telling off tenants who could use a good telling-off. In other words he’s a janitor who plays by his own rules.
But this is not a plumbing procedural. Lee gets a call about his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler, THE WOLF OF WALL STREET) being hospitalized in Manchester, an hour and a half away. He drops everything, but by the time he gets there Joe is dead.
Lee is the only person available to take care of family business, most importantly notifying Joe’s teenage son Patrick (Lucas Hedges, MOONRISE KINGDOM) and staying with him while things get straightened out. If you’ve seen the trailer you know that the will makes Lee Patrick’s guardian, which Lee is not okay with. So the movie is about him hanging out with this kid and trying to figure out what to do about the situation. Both of their futures are completely in flux here.
The story fills in with occasional flashbacks. John had congenital heart disease. Something was wrong with his wife (Gretchen Mol, 3:10 TO YUMA and GET CARTER remakes). Lee used to live here with a wife (Michelle Williams, BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, SPECIES) and three young daughters. In the present he’s somewhat infamous in town, and liable to get in drunken fights with strangers at bars. Lots of information is withheld until later.
One of these flashbacks finally reveals a major event that puts everything we’ve seen in a completely different light. It’s horribly tragic, but in some ways a relief, because it shows that Lee has a better reason to be afraid of taking care of Patrick than just being a deadbeat. It’s an interesting relationship between these two. Lee is kind of more like an older brother than a guardian. So much so that Patrick tries to use him to distract his girlfriend’s mom so he can get it in there.
To me Patrick feels very true to life, because he’s a kid who doesn’t fit an obvious archetype. He plays guitar in a band and has two girlfriends, but isn’t some James Dean type or dreamboat. He’s on the hockey team and has anger problems but doesn’t seem like a jock. Hedges reminds me of Jesse Eisenberg mixed with a young Matt Damon.
I really relate to some of the ways Lee and Patrick process grief. They stay very calm, seem to not be too emotional, but later let it out in other ways. There’s a very good scene where seemingly unflappable Patrick suddenly gets flapped. He completely breaks down over something dumb, but it’s really about something else. There are two scenes where characters get mad at the men for making jokes, allegedly taking serious situations too lightly. Different people deal with these stresses in different ways, and they can clash. I wouldn’t read a gender assumption into the fact that the characters that react this way are both women. It says more about the women that the men of this family are attracted to than about women in general. Patrick has a girlfriend who might be incompatible with him in similar ways to how his mother was incompatible with his father. That’s how it works.
This is a family of people who argue all the time. It’s usually more funny bickering than hateful, but it’s gotta wear them out. Lee’s way of becoming the grownup is mostly saying “no” to Patrick. He doesn’t want to rearrange his own life the way he’s being asked to, so he’s looking for the easier thing instead of the thing the kid wants. It would be easier to sell the boat than get a new engine and keep paying to moor it until the kid is old enough to use it to make back the money.
Lee, his ex and his brother’s ex all had to rebuild their lives after tragedy, addiction or both. Williams’ character Randi seems to be having the most success at that. She’s also the only one that will talk a little bit about what happened.
I’m gonna get uncomfortably personal here for a minute. As I’m typing this up it’s the second day this week that I spent with my mom in the emergency room, two separate incidents. This morning I calmly “okayed” my way through a phone conversation that incorrectly led me to believe she might’ve died. A few of these characters have it way, way worse than I do, but I guess I’ve been through the emotional wringer enough these last couple years that the movies most people say they’re crying at haven’t been doing it for me. I was prepared for this to be real sad, and it didn’t even occur to me until watching it that it was gonna bring up memories about my dad dying last year. Then during the movie I realized it was the anniversary!
So I figure I gotta be emotionally bankrupt or something because I still only had 1 (one) tear. It was during the memorial service. Not really the saddest scene in the movie, but it reminded me enough of my dad’s that it got me. Most movies only have the graveside service, they skip the church part. Ironically it’s personal experiences that end up making me sad, but they’re also what desensitized me to these movies.
I respect this one for capturing the feeling of some of these life experiences in a more accurate way than standard Hollywood product often does. For example the way the business of making arrangements can calm you during a family emergency. He’s not freaking out about his brother because he’s making phone calls to get his shifts covered. Also the matter-of-factness of the scenes with the dead body, the weird mix of “oh shit, that’s my dead brother” gravity and mundanity, the awkwardness of feeling like you should see it out of respect or something but also not wanting to see it. These bits of awkward humanity make it feel a little more true.
And don’t worry, it’s not some kind of misery porn. There are at least two scenes where Lonergan takes pity on the audience and doesn’t make us witness something that would be really wrenching. Example: we don’t hear how Lee tells Patrick that his father is dead. We just watch their body language from across a hockey rink. Also, Lonergan has a pretty comical cameo as a random passerby who gets in Lee’s business. He’s kinda right but also he’s an asshole for getting involved when he doesn’t know these people or what they’re going through. Shut up and walk your dog, dude.
Alot of the talk on this one is about how good Affleck is in it, his awards potential, and also how that could be affected by some bad stuff that has come out about Trump-like behavior with women who worked with him on that Joaquin Phoenix mockumentary I’M STILL HERE. That’s sad to hear because he’s such a likable actor, and so natural a fit for the put-upon-underdog because of our familiarity with his more famous and square-jawed big brother Batman. We want to believe he’s our buddy. But actually it also fits with performances like this, where he’s likable despite his obvious damage and self loathing. We watch him like his friends (especially helpful family friend George, played by C.J. Wilson) watch him – with unwavering loyalty despite disappointment that we have to jump in and pull him off of some random dude he gets in a fight with at the bar.
So although this is a great performance it’s so close to what I imagine Affleck really being like that my preferred role for him this year was in TRIPLE 9, where being a tough ex-military police officer seemed like a bigger transformation.
When the movie was over I felt like I wasn’t disappointed in any way, that it completely lived up to the hype, but also that it wasn’t something I personally was excited about. But it’s been a week or two and I keep thinking about it. The feeling of it has really stuck with me. So I’m looking forward to part 2 or whatever.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.