Director: Kenneth Longergan
Starring: Casey Affleck
Life goes on, but maybe, sometimes, it doesn't. Maybe there are wounds that run so deep that they never heal and only ever become manageable. Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester By the Sea, his third feature after 2000's You Can Count on Me and 2011's Margaret, is a portrait of grief, of a man who will live the rest of his days in the psychic space left by the worst moment of his life. It's a fine film, often moving, sometimes funny, well-observed when it comes to the minutiae of relationships and of place, and filled with great performances, from its star right down to actors who only appear in a scene or two. It's everything, basically, that you expect from a movie released at this time of year. I'm not convinced, on first viewing, that it's anything more than that, a film that you admire as it burns brightly in the heat of Oscar season and then never feel compelled to revisit - but, then again, I felt that way about You Can Count On Me for a long time, too. Sometimes you have to grow a bit before you can engage a movie on its level and recognize its quiet genius, and maybe that's the case with Manchester By the Sea.
The death that sets the plot in motion is well-established in the film's advertising: Joe (Kyle Chandler), the older brother of Lee (Casey Affleck), dies, leaving behind a teenage son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), who Lee must now care for. That's the plot of Manchester By the Sea, though it's not really what the film is about. Rather, the film is about an earlier tragedy that is brought into sharp relief by Joe's death and its after effects. In making the decision to name Lee as Patrick's guardian - knowing that the chances of it actually coming to pass are not small, given that he has congestive heart disease and is already on borrowed time - Joe re-opens a wound that never really healed in the first place and which resulted in Lee imposing on himself a sort of self-exile, leaving his life in Manchester behind to live quietly in Quincy, and ending his marriage to Randi (Michelle Williams). That he still refers to Randi as his wife, even though they've been apart for about a decade and he can't even bear to speak to her, is a testament to how much he's still living in that past, unable to escape it.
Yet what Joe has done is not an act of cruelty meant to torture his brother, even though it might feel that way to Lee. It was a decision made in the hope of saving Lee from what he's spent the last decade doing to himself, to give him something to live for, to do something that might allow him to forgive himself, just a little bit, and move forward with his life. He's giving Lee the opportunity to prove to himself that he can take care of another person and be happy again and that he deserves to be happy again. Lonergan, a keen observer of the little things that make people tick and which render his characters less as "characters" and more as people, never has anyone come out and explicitly say all this, which is what so many filmmakers would be tempted to do with a grandiose speech that would create the third act turning point, but instead makes it implicitly understood through the way that Joe and Lee interacted (shown in flashbacks) and, in particular, through how Joe handled Lee's personal tragedy by offering support to try to keep Lee from giving up on himself.
Making Lee the guardian of Patrick is the best thing for Lee because it forces him to participate in life, to make decisions, and to be responsible for another human being. It may not be the best thing for Patrick, however, who is aware that Lee doesn't want to be his guardian (though perhaps not, immediately, aware that it's not so much that he doesn't want to, but feels that he can't do it) and that even if he does take on the role, he intends to uproot Patrick from his life and move him to Quincy. Wonderfully played by Hedges, Patrick at first seems amazingly upbeat in the wake of his father's death. He laughs and jokes with his friends, he dismisses the attempts of his girlfriend (one of two girlfriends that he's juggling) to comfort him as unnecessary, he gets on with life so swiftly that at first you chalk it up to the inevitability of it all. Joe's death has been a long time coming, he's been in and out of the hospital a lot during Patrick's short life, so maybe Patrick was just prepared for it and had already made peace with it.
It's only later, when he experiences an episode of grief that leaves both him and Lee shaken, that you start to understand how much he's been putting on an act - not because he feels that he shouldn't grieve, but because he's aware that he's a kid everyone feels bad for but no one really wants to, or can be, responsible for and he's trying to show everyone that he's easy to deal with and wouldn't actually be any trouble at all. His mother (Gretchen Moll) has been out of the picture since he was a child, though she makes an attempt to reconnect after Joe's death by inviting him over for dinner with her and her new husband (Matthew Broderick), the brittle formality of it all making it clear that Patrick coming to live with them will not be an option. There's George (C.J. Wilson) and his wife, friends of Joe and Lee, who would be happy to help however they can to make the transition easier for both Lee and Patrick but, with four kids of their own, can't really take on another when Lee asks if they want to become guardians. While Lee is trying to sort himself out and get himself into a better head space, Patrick is being shuttled around, trying to find a place to land where he can rest assured that he'll be allowed to stay for a while.
But while Patrick is desperate, Lee is utterly broken and despite the intensity of the events in his past and his present, Affleck underplays things, making Lee's anguish something that's just become a deeply ingrained part of his personality rather than something overtly demonstrative (with the exception of one moment, although even that is played with the quiet stoicism of someone who feels like he needs to do something and wants to get it over with as quickly as possible). It wouldn't be a stretch to say that this is Affleck's best performance to date (and it's hard to imagine he could ever deliver one better, though at 41 he's still young with a whole career still ahead of him) and his scenes with Hedges, vacillating between exasperation, affection, and guilt that he can't bring himself to give just a little bit more to this kid who has lost everything, and with Williams, whose role in the narrative is small but ultimately powerful, are masterclasses in how a screenplay and performances can work together to demonstrate how some things can remain unsaid but still be made understood. Manchester By the Sea is a very, very good film. I don't know that it's quite equal to the massive amount of hype it's received (though few films would be), but it's very good.