'Manchester By The Sea' Is A Vividly Alive Drama About Loss And Grief
When Lee Chandler appears in the opening of Manchester By The Sea, he is charismatically casual as he jokes with a young boy on a fishing boat. Lee, the boy's uncle, is performing his familial duty, but he also finds a bit of joy in this innocuous interaction. The film then cuts a decade ahead, when Lee works as a janitor and repairman in a Boston suburban building. He deals with a range of irritable folks and throws hostility back at them. Played with a cemented frown and dejected eyes by Casey Affleck, Lee goes about his business without any sense of self-worth. His routine is punctuated by bar fights that he randomly starts for the sake of adding external bruises to match his internal ones.
Kenneth Lonergan's last film, the unabashedly operatic New York-tale Margaret, took the female melodrama and its heightened teenaged emotions by attaching it to a uniquely social milieu where such voices become lost in the urban bustle. Manchester similarly uses its location—in this case, the eponymous North Shore town—to define its text. The suburban setting contains all the picturesque beauty one expects from still lakes and decently-sized homes, but the vibe of its denizens (especially the men) is distinctly working class. They shout and get rambunctious. Their demeanor range from silent sulking to angry. And everyone knows just a tad too much of everyone else's business.
Lee had escaped Manchester a decade ago (the reasons are left to sly parsing of narrative tidbits), but he's forced to return to raise his now 16-year-old rebellious nephew (Lucas Hedges) after the boy's father has passed. Lee has no interest in returning to a town where he's viewed as a social pariah (it also doesn't help that he's gripped with internal guilt) but the conflicts of drama demand it.
Three films, as well as a handful of Broadway plays, have cemented Longeran as a classical dramatist at heart. He crafts melodramatic narratives that ring out toward larger themes, just as John Steinbeck and Arthur Miller had done. But he can be a deceptively sly filmmaker who challenges many of our expectations for the Great American Tragedy. If Manchester does invest itself in highly tumultuous drama (the revelations are guaranteed tear duct operators), Lonergan also invites a number of ridiculous moments of great comedy. Manchester's numerous shouting matches and zippy one-liners often make for more humor than pathos (and with the heavy New England accents, they remind you more of BoJack Horseman's Boston episode than of serious drama).
Despite its picturesque locations, Manchester is a decidedly bland looking film. Former Girls cinematographer Jody Lee Lips provides a straightforward gray look, rather than an expressive palette. But the work by editor Jennifer Lame (whose resume includes multiple Noah Baumbach films) finds a way to puncture the mundanity. Two characters will be speaking in casual shot-reverse shots, and then the film cuts to an off-beat angle of both their faces at a moment totally unrelated to the growing tension. This strategy turns the subdued scenes of drama into stirringly odd ones, as if the edits work to jolt the audience.
While Lonergan has crafted a career that emulates American drama, Manchester takes the usual stakes and punctures their perfunctory seriousness. This is a story about the usual themes: the dynamics of family, the pains of guilt, the masculine approach to grief. But the skills Lonergan demonstrates are found in the language, the social milieu, and the careful parsing of narrative details to make the emotional beats feel authentic, rather than obvious. Death might be easy, but under Lonergan's hands, the tragedy at the center of Manchester By The Sea feels stitched with care to make its usual story feel vividly alive, and the comedic tangents allow the pathos and angry strife to veer out of left field and hit us with unexpected force.
Manchester By The Sea opens everywhere today.
Peter Labuza is a freelance film critic, whose work has appeared in Variety, Sight & Sound, and The A.V. Club. Follow him on Twitter.