The non-linear structure of Manchester By The Sea means that we meet Casey Affleck’s Lee Chandler twice at the start of the film. First, as he teaches his young nephew to fish and kids around on his brother’s boat, then seven years later, as he miserably shovels snow off the path outside the box room where he lives. Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan has us hooked from this first contrast and then reels us in as the drama unfolds.
We soon learn that Lee lives a simple and unfulfilled existence as a janitor in Boston, serving whingy residents in a run-down tenement. When he gets word that his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has succumbed to a terminal heart condition, he heads back to his hometown of Manchester, Massachussetts, to make arrangements for the funeral and look after his now-teenaged nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) in the interim.
However, he’s stunned to discover that Joe has named him as Patrick’s guardian in his will. Lee is either unable or unwilling to uproot his life in Boston to move back home, due in part to the circumstances in which he originally moved away and the lingering memory of his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams), who has remarried. But in a town where he is notoriously “the Lee Chandler”, he has to hold it together for his nephew’s sake.
Produced by Matt Damon (who originally intended to play Lee), this is neither a cut-and-dry cathartic weepie or a meditative statement about grief. Manchester By The Sea is a raw and emotional character study in which Lee is the eerily still and desperate centre. The image of him shovelling snow, only to have to do the same job again a day later in screentime, is a potent motif – every day is the same struggle, no matter how well he did the day before.
Affleck is on career-best form here, finding the humanity of a hollowed out and antisocial character, long before the film elaborates upon his backstory. Lee is given to explosive anger rather than expressing his feelings, but as much as some of this might sound like typical end-of-year Oscar fare, there’s none of the typical showboating, in these outbursts or anywhere else. It’s a performance that has to be taken as a whole, so goodness knows what clip they’re going to show before he wins Best Actor.
While Affleck burrows into the character’s despair, the cleverness of Lonergan’s screenplay, beyond its compelling structure, is in the surprising lightness of tone every now and again. It’s not a big laugher and it’s certainly not funny for the characters, but it’s the sheer tragicomic awkwardness that gets to you, as in a cringe-making scene featuring Gretchen Mol as Patrick’s errant mother and Matthew Broderick as his stepdad-in-waiting.
Meanwhile, Hedges carries himself like a young Damon, and gives a great breakthrough. He’s guarded and quick witted and capable of enormous emotional turns on a dime. There’s a subplot about him seeing two girlfriends (Kara Hayward and Anna Baryshnikov) at the same time as he tries to lose his virginity that would be a bit redundant if not for his likeable bravado. Also, unlike Lee, he has a social life that includes an endearingly rubbish garage band and arch-Bostonian conversations about “Stah Trek” with his friends.
But one recurring theme is Patrick’s fixation on how his father’s body is being stored while the funeral is arranged, which is first expressed in a typically banter-y exchange between uncle and nephew, but later ignites a tearful nervous breakdown, and Hedges plays both scenes with commendable grace. Lee and Patrick are both hurting and their unlikely double act is endlessly watchable.
But the real standout sequence here comes around an hour into the film, finally unveiling Lee’s past at the precise moment that he’s called upon to take responsibility again. A short conversation in the present day lasts 15 minutes in screen time, as the use of flashbacks makes us feel the way in which Lee relives the worst night of his life in an instant. After this, everything we’ve seen up to this point is given a heartbreaking new context. It’s a superb marriage of editing and performance and the crowning achievement of a deeply moving film.
If there’s a downside, it’s that we don’t get enough of Williams, who is briefly but devastatingly used as Randi. Her big scene is on the poster, but she’s in the film for maybe 15 minutes at most. Her interactions with Lee are almost unbearably sad, but where Kyle Chandler’s role as the best big brother ever make his absence more keenly felt later on, Randi’s character is somehow flattened down and only seen in relation to the central character’s bereavement.
Manchester By The Sea is a bruising and bittersweet character study, with dark thoughts and a strong heart bursting from behind that deadpan expression. Affleck and Hedges are extraordinary in their portrayal of ordinary people on the brink of despair and as frosty as both the tone and the setting may be, there are unexpected pockets of warmth in Lonergan’s witty and understanding direction.
Manchester By The Sea is in UK cinemas now.