The saying “you can never go home again” would have quite a bit of meaning to Lee Chambers (Casey Affleck), the lead of Kenneth Lonergan’s newest film, Manchester by the Sea. Saddled with a stressful maintenance job in Quincy, Massachusetts with a hole in a basement apartment and a nightlife that consists of drinking himself into fights with other townies, life has brought him far from his memories of going out with his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) on his fishing boat with Joe’s young son, or caring for his three daughters with his wife Randi (Michelle Williams). Lonergan is coy with what brought Lee to the point he is at on the onset of Manchester by the Sea, but life has a funny way to bring the past to the forefront at the worst possible moment. A phone call on a snowy day see Lee forced to return to the town of his birth due to the death of his brother, succumbed to congestive heart failure. Joe is survived by his now 16 year old son Patrick (Lucas Hedges), and with a mother (Gretchen Mol) who flew the coop battling alcoholism, the onus of care falls to Lee, torn between a sense of love and fealty to his newly orphaned nephew and the specter of grief and regret that haunts him when he walks the streets of his past.
Past and present are mutable in Manchester by the Sea. The narrative runs on parallel tracks, of a simpler past, the tragedy that tore Lee’s life asunder and the haze of fear and sorrow that comes from confronting it all over again. Lonergan doesn’t treat the event that derailed his life as a mystery, but he does his foundational homework to establish a clear before and after to inform just who this man is now and who he was then and what could possible hollow him out in such a way that he is ignored or spoken about in hushed tones by former acquaintances and colleagues when he returns to Manchester. Affleck has to walk a tightrope in his depiction of Lee Chambers, unable to build a life for himself of any consequence on his own, but just as unable to be a father to his nephew. To flee, to return to a living that isn’t good or helpful, but is at least vaguely tolerable, is to abandon a boy who just lost his father and reject the dying wishes of his flesh and blood. Calling it an impossible situation is honestly underselling things.
To ratchet up the storytelling difficulty even further, Lee isn’t exactly much of a sharer, his turmoil played outwardly as silence, pensive glances and furtive expressions. Conveying this internal conflict with genuine feeling and understanding is fiendishly difficult, but Affleck is more than up for the task, resulting in what very well could be the performance of his career. He is is nearly every scene, nearly every shot, the camera denying him the privacy or respite he desires. But while Manchester by the Sea is centered on his torment and isolation, he has a partner in the form of Lucas Hedges’ equally complex and conflicted Patrick. Patrick is more of a talker, giving Hedges more dialogue to forge his character, but his maelstrom of emotions is further complicated by virtue of being only sixteen years old, not the most stable time in anyone’s life, let alone someone who finds himself without parents to rely on. This isn’t Hedges’ first role, but it is his toughest, and he manages to keep up with Affleck at every turn. They form the existential core of the film, focusing on the fragility of humanity and the resolve of the human spirit, forging on despite it all. It would be easy for Lee to give up, to be defeated. But it’s the hanging on that comes to define us, and it’s the hanging on that makes Manchester by the Sea feel so vital.
This all sounds rather difficult to sit through, and indeed, Manchester by the Sea is one of the most emotionally draining films of 2016. But Lonergan isn’t afraid to break the tension with some humor, and throughout the film, it’s surprising how many laughs can be found. Many of these moments come from flashbacks of happier times, but it bleeds over to the present as well, allowing Lee to show some spark that gives both him and the audience something to cling to. It makes for a bit of a manic depressive viewing experience, and balance of tone is key. Considering the narrative, implementing this sense of levity could easily be seen as flippant, undoing the more powerful aspects of Lee’s grasping for redemption. Luckily, Lonergan and his cast hit the highs and lows just right. Manchester by the Sea is not maudlin at its depth and not garish at its height. It is astonishingly lived in, a beautiful portrait of small town Massachusetts life where there’s always a Bruins game on TV and a Red Sox game on the radio.Such genuine feeling makes for the perfect setting for Lonergan’s story, a real world of weight and consequence, sad at times and funny at others, but never compromised.
We all know a Lee Chambers. Some of us might be a Lee Chambers. We deal with tragedies big and small every day of our lives. For better and (definitely) for worse, they make us who we are, building our lives out of a series of moments. Lee has to confront an impossible and heart wrenching situation, choosing between his responsibility to his family and the demons he must confront returning home. His home isn’t a home anymore, a feeling all too familiar to many of us, and watching him try to make it work for the benefit of his nephew is powerful cinema indeed. Manchester by the Sea soars thanks to its breathtaking performances (watch for Michelle Williams giving another knockout supporting turn) and crushing realism. These days, we think of movies as giant events, as blockbusters and water cooler conversation starters as the price of entry becomes more and more prohibitive. But a film like Manchester by the Sea is a potent reminder that smaller films can pack just as much of a punch, and are just as worthy of our time as the big spectacles. 2016 has been a year for smaller films. A year for Moonlight and Kate Plays Christine and The Witch. And it’s definitely a year for Manchester by the Sea.