A man stuck in grief finds even more to grieve for when he loses his older brother. Going back to his hometown he learns that he’s been entrusted with the care of his teenage son, and crosses paths with his ex-wife. In order to help his nephew deal with his new life, he must learn to deal with his own past demons.
The plot for Manchester by the Sea sound very familiar and potentially formulaic. But in reality there is more substance to this story than other film of its kind. We see our lead character Lee (played by Casey Affleck) as a man who seems to have zero emotions, no human connection, and cares only to lose himself in his work as a maintenance technician and in alcohol (but not reaching alcoholic status). Almost everything he does is self-destructive and he uses it as a way of his personal punishment for something that happened in his past. When he’s entrusted with his nephew, Lee’s struggle becomes even more real. He tries to better himself for his nephew’s sake, but it’s easier said than done. Things become even more ignited when he gets in touch with his ex wife. The film takes place in the present, but gives us glimpses of the past (these scenes are very well inserted) that help us understand how Lee became the person he is now. These inter-lapping scenes only make the story more depressing than it already is when we see Lee’s life prior to the incident. Along with Lee, we get insight to the life his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) has. It seems that Patrick has his own ways of grieving by going back and forth between two girls, starting fights in hockey, and playing in his garage band. While these aren’t exactly the worst things he can do, it leaves Lee concerned but unsure how to deal with all of this. That said, Affleck and Hedges’ scenes together are the best moments of the film and the two actors share very good on-screen chemistry with each other that feel like real uncle/nephew moments. It’s his time with Patrick that Lee seems to be the closest to grounded that he can be. Kyle Chandler plays Affleck’s brother and Hedges’ father. We don’t get a lot of moments with Chandler but he does well with what he is in. Michelle Williams plays Lee’s ex-wife Randi. Unfortunately, Williams doesn’t get as much screen time as she should. She’s in a few flashbacks, a couple of brief scenes in the present and then one big present scene where she provides an extremely strong, raw, and emotional performance with Casey Affleck (both actors knock it out of the park in this scene). Along with the lack of Williams, I am also disappointed with the fact that there was no real resolution between the two, the aforementioned scene is perfect, but at the same time, there was no real build up to it since neither actors had any affective screen time prior to this scene that wasn’t in flashback form. Along with Michelle Williams’ fine (although brief) performance we get a career turning performance from Casey Affleck. I admit when the film first started I had no idea what to think of this performance, but as the flashbacks gave more insight to the character, that’s when I realized that Affleck is actually providing an extremely hard-hitting, raw, and strong performance. He captures this character’s struggle with grief, self-hatred, and lack of human emotion due to his past in a way that not too many male actors ever could. Lucas Hedges also provides a strong breakthrough performance as a teen who’s also struggling with grief and how to deal with it, but he also provides some good humorous moments with Affleck that are very well-timed and on point. It’s also worth noting that Kenneth Lonergan provides beautiful direction in how he wants to capture the setting of the story, how he wants us to view these characters, and really wanting to put us in their world and feel their emotions.
Never before have I seen a film that captures such a well-done representation of grief (and uncertainty of how to drive), guilt, self-blame/hatred, and overall just a dark side of the human mind and emotions that hasn’t really been captured. This is a beautiful movie but it’s very depressing and doesn’t leave much room for hope. All of this is backed by the great performances and solid direction. Even if the relationship between Williams and Affleck felt extremely lacking in terms of the present. But despite this I couldn’t recommend this film more and hope it earns some great Golden Globe and Oscar wins in 2017.