With Manchester by the Sea, Kenneth Lonergan has made another great film. This one exists somewhere between his intimate debut, You Can Count on Me, and his operatic Margaret in terms of scope but, with its closely observed humanity and consistent levity, Lonergan has made a picture about common and uncommon grieving that cements his status as one of America’s most reliable filmmakers.
When we meet Casey Affleck’s Lee Chandler, he’s living in a studio apartment in Quincy, Massachusetts and working as a handyman. Soon after, he gets a phone call that his brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler) has had a heart attack. By the time Lee makes the drive to his hometown of Manchester (well, technically, the hospital is in Beverly), Joe has passed away, designating in his will that Lee be the guardian of Joe’s sixteen-year-old son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). This present day story is intercut with flashbacks detailing how Lee came to be the person he is today and why he is resistant to moving back to Manchester to look after his nephew.
Lonergan’s sense of humor is on target as always. So many laughs in such a heavy movie (Joe’s death is only the beginning of the film’s downers) is a bit daring. But he understands the bittersweet, domestic jibing of close-knit families as well as the gallows humor they use to cope with death. Hedges in particular is winningly sarcastic in the way of a petulant teen but with higher than average innate intelligence.
If Manchester‘s comedy is universal, it can also be very specific about its locations (remember, the hospital is in Beverly) as well as its milieu of working class, white, American Catholics. There’s an even a joke referencing the way that the word “Christian” is usually used to denote Protestants, while Catholics are perceived as something other.
Most remarkably, though, Lonergan nails the nauseous doldrums of grief, the way the world dulls and time distends in the days and weeks after someone has been lost. In Lee’s case, this gives him often unwanted opportunities to confront his past. The action may start with Joe’s death but Lee’s demons run much deeper. Manchester by the Sea offers no easy resolutions but, despite its pervasive sadness, it leaves us with hope for Lee and for all of us.