No film this year felt more like real life than Manchester By the Sea, a honest portrayal of family coping with grief. In director Kenneth Lonergan hands, everything about this film feels real, from the seaside town setting to every syllable of dialogue.
When we first meet Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), he’s happily fishing with his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) and his nephew Patrick. He was your average family man with two loving kids and a loving wife. Then a horrible set of circumstances took that away. Now’ he’s an entirely different person. Working as a janitor for a condominium, Lee has become a surly social shut in living alone in a one room basement. At the bar, when he’s either drowning himself in booze, he’s picking a fight with a random stranger just for looking at him. He has no connections with his fellow man that’s the way he’d like it.
Then one day, Joe dies and the teenage Patrick (Lucas Hedges) is left in custody of Lee. He’s thinking this has to be a mistake, but no. So, he returns to his hometown of Manchester set up Joes’ funeral and figure out how to take care for Patrick while he figures out how to go about this. It won’t be so simple. Since it’s winter, the morgue must keep him in a freezer until the ground thaws. He decides to move to Boston so he can better take care of Patrick. Patrick doesn’t want to leave his home or his friends. He needs to sell Joe’s boat. Patrick wants to maintain his father’s fishing industry. Lee can’t afford it. It goes on like this. The arguments between Affleck and Hedges feels as natural as an overheard conversation, with Lee considering his finances while Patrick’s talking about heated shovels and janitorial jobs in Manchester.
Kenneth Lonergan’s directorial skills bears a resemblance to John Cassavetes, the man who created the independent film. Like Cassavetes, Lonergan creates a sense of realism in scenes, with people going through their everyday lives. Lonergan certainly avoids any flashy camera work nor any cinematic gimmicks. The only exceptions are the flashbacks, but they blend so much into other scenes it takes about a minute before you realize it’s a flashback. He just lets the scene play out.
Another similarity with Cassavetes films is the characters seemingly random actions. There will be moments when a character’s actions will make you cringe, whether it’s Lee beating someone up just for bumping into him or a flashback of the family finding Patricks addict mother lying on a couch with no pants on. Though many seem random, these actions have their own reasoning behind them. When packets of meat fall out of the freezer, this triggers a panic attack in Patrick. After a conversation with Lee, Patrick reveals he was thinking about his father frozen in a morgue.
On the surface, the film has a lot of sad moments, especially when we learn how Lee lost his family. The film also has a lot of funny moments. The humour doesn’t come so much from jokes as they do come from truth. You can imagine these humorous moments happening in real life, including Patrick getting his hand caught in his girlfriend’s belt buckle during attempted sex. There are also some funny lines, like Patrick suggesting they put his dad in Lee’s freezing car.
Manchester by the Sea is a realistic portrayal of ordinary people trying their best to cope with tragic circumstances. In its pitch perfect depiction of everyday life, Lonergan and the actors have reached a connection most directors only wish for.