The emotion can manifest itself at the most unexpected time. When you forget where you parked your car. Or when the food falls out of the freezer. Or when you are shoveling the snow in your driveway. Or when a random passerby gets in your face about how you are talking to your nephew. Or when you are just having casual conversation with a person.
Grief is that emotion and it has the power fueled by memory to suddenly bubble to the surface at any moment. The elegiac beauty of Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea, the subtlest and most perceptive film about grief that I have ever seen, is how it internalizes the emotion so well to show what most people do with grief: barely hold it in. Grief does not necessarily result in a breakdown of tears, though it sometimes does. Rather, for the film’s protagonist, Lee Chandler (an absolutely majestic Casey Affleck), the pervading grief from a past incident has shrunken him smaller. As he works as a general custodial handy man for people’s households, he goes on living life in Boston holding his grief in the pockets of his soul. However, from his hunched shoulders, his speech, and his sunken eyes, we can see that he is internally on edge fearing the next time he will get struck by a pang of grief. He is the last person who deserves to hear further news that his brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler) has just died due to a heart failure at the beginning of this story.
We see from the film’s carefully timed flashbacks that Joe was a real bedrock for Lee. When the past incident happened in Lee’s life, Joe was the one there to get him through. The brothers, along with Joe’s son, Patrick would go on fishing trips out to the sea in Manchester when they were younger. Due to the strong bond they shared, it may have seemed natural to Joe in his will to assign Lee be the legal guardian to Patrick (played in present as a teenager by Lucas Hedges), after his alcoholic mother, Elise (Gretchen Mol) left them. However, Lee is astonished and unprepared to take on the responsibility.
You may think the film is a dispiriting affair from what I have described but that would only be true if it focused solely on the pangs of grief. What makes this movie incomparably richer is that it also finds the moments of joy that allow life to go on anyway. Despite the pervading power of grief, we can eventually find something in and around us to get us through in between these moments. It may not be the kind of big epiphany where the sun rises and all the pain is wiped away. But it is in those small pockets of respite and humor that can be just as unexpected as the moments of grief. As this movie shows, the humor is not of the kind that makes you laugh out loud but the kind that comes from the elasticity of sharing a close bond with someone or simply recognizing little details or quirks in life.
Much of the story’s emotional complexity is in the central relationship between Lee and Patrick. It is not that they open up their feelings frankly to each other or reminisce together explicitly often about what kind of guy Joe was. Lee is too withdrawn for that and Patrick occupies himself by trying to play hockey and going through adolescent troubles like balancing time between his two girlfriends. But in the way they talk, you know they have a common history and rapport and their company with each other keeps them going. There is also Lee’s close friend, George (C.J. Wilson), who provides the kind of gentle comfort of simply being there even if he is a little clumsy at times (one of the film’s funnier moments shows him shouting to his wife across the room during Joe’s wake asking if Lee has eaten).
Lee possibly could make a natural guardian to Patrick as the latter finishes his last two years in high school. However, for, Lee, returning to Manchester opens up a lot of old wounds. There is that pivotal event in his life that looms over and follows him like a gray cloud everywhere, even in the faces of random people who give him stares at a bar. That event led to the dissolution of his loving marriage with Randi (Michelle Williams). When she and Lee finally meet in a devastating scene, we see the feelings they shared were simmering just barely below the surface.
I realize that I may have written little more than a glorified series of reflections without making much reference to the actors or the technical qualities of the film. I could more critically analyze why I think playwright turned writer/director Kenneth Lonergan has made his best movie after two previous terrific films, You Can Count on Me and Margaret. I could talk more about how I think the film’s structure edited by Jennifer Lame inserts the flashbacks effectively to reflect the uncontrollable nature of memory and, along with the subtle choral music by Lesley Barber, inspires the emotional introspections it does. I could write in more detail about my small wish to have the female characters to show more shadings than emotional frailty or being a potential killjoy for male behavior.
However, I would rather let the reflections from this movie wash over me. I have had memories of a loved one pop in my head when I was typing at work. I did grow more frustrated than I normally would after a sad event when I misplaced my keys. I have found solace in a family member or friend who calls me to take me away from my moment of grief. I did find a certain peace of mind when I observed something that helped me reminisce a cherished memory with a loved one. The highest praise that I can pay Manchester by the Sea that it has put feelings so identifiable that I feel that I cathartically lived through them.
USA. 2016. Amazon Studios presents a film written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan. Starring: Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Lucas Hedges, Kyle Chandler, C.J. Wilson, Gretchen Mol, Kara Hayward, Anna Baryshnikov, and Matthew Broderick. Rated R for language throughout and some sexual content.