Manchester By the Sea

Most mistakes can be fixed, apologised for or forgotten. Some change our lives completely and forever.

Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is a thirty-something janitor living in a tiny basement flat in Boston. He works hard and seems capable, but can’t get along with anyone. He drinks alone and is prone to throwing a fist if someone looks at him the wrong way. His life is a quiet hell and he feels safe in its small, dark space. But when his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) dies, Lee unexpectedly finds himself on the road to his hometown, Manchester-by-the-Sea.

As he drives through the heavy snow, memories come tumbling down, memories that paralyse him. Fortunately, there is much to do – at the hospital, the funeral home, the lawyer’s… Patrick (Lucas Hedges), his 16-year-old nephew, seems to be handling his father’s death fairly well and seems more interested in pursuing his sex life. Lee feels like he is coping – until the will is read and he discovers that  he’s been appointed Patrick’s legal guardian. He can’t take on a teenager, even one he loves.

Lee moves into Joe’s house, agreeing to stay through the winter, so Patrick can finish the school year. As Lee searches for a solution, the weight of the past bears down – no one will hire him, he runs into his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams), everything triggers a memory followed by another, so many that he can’t drown them in a bottle and the only hope is to escape, but Patrick needs him.

Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan draws us into this frigid world, where Lee’s broken heart is as cold as the icy wind blowing off the Atlantic, as lost as the snowflakes caught in its grip. Yet life in Manchester-by-the-Sea continues the way it always has – there is no a miracle on the horizon. Casey Affleck immerses himself in the tortured Lee, giving us a deeply felt performance of a character who is nearly dead inside. Michelle Williams is his opposite as his ex-wife – full of emotion and passion – in her way, just as broken as Lee, but trying to rebuild herself and her life. And even she can’t reach him.

This is a sad, deeply moving film. All of the characters are reminiscent of people we know. The tragedies are those suffered by people we know – and so is that unimaginable grief we all fear in our worst nightmares.

With six well-earned Oscar Nominations, including Best Film, Best Director for Lonergan, Best Supporting Actor for Lucas Hedges and Supporting Actress for Michelle Williams, Manchester-by-the-Sea is one of the best movies you’ll see this year. Bring tissues.
4.5 stars

Veronica McLaughlin

Watch the trailer here: