Manchester by the Sea

Manchester by the Sea

MPAA Rating: R | Rating: ★★★★
Release year: 2016
Genre: Drama Director: Kenneth Lonergan

Manchester by the Sea joins the ranks of Grave of the Fireflies and Make Way for Tomorrow as one of the saddest films I’ve seen. Its sadness is its strength as it emphasizes the ordinariness of grief, never shifting into melodrama to earn its tears. Its central character Lee, portrayed with a remarkable intensity by Casey Affleck, is a man acquainted with sorrows, carrying his grief around like an invisible backpack full of bricks. Affleck’s performance centers not on the eyes or Lee’s words, but on his hands and posture. Whether those hands are straining on a fishing line, shoveling snow from a sidewalk, turning a wrench on a pipe, punching a person in the face, shaking from the shock of horrific news, or stuffed into pockets, its Lee’s palms and digits which are his primary form of emotional communication, a sort of “tell” revealing Lee’s deep sense of shame and self-deprecation.

Upon learning of the sudden death of his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler), Lee is compelled to return to his former home of Manchester to take care of the arrangements. Forced to be the guardian of his now-orphaned nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges), Lee walks a fine line between being a responsible adult and an unstable presence in Patrick’s life. In the wake of his brother’s death, the primary conflict becomes, will Lee stay in Manchester, or will he leave again? Haunted by another tragedy in the past which has left him in a self-isolated purgatory, Lee cannot seem to bring himself to a place of healing. Even while being present in his hometown, he remains distant and aloof. Patrick serves as Lee’s foil, a sarcastic and light-hearted teenager who seems to handle the death of Joe with a surprising maturity. There is a good deal of humor through their interactions, a pleasant relief in what would otherwise be an overwhelmingly doleful film.

The most remarkable moment–the Big Scene–in Manchester by the Sea occurs about 2/3 into the film as Lee has a conversation with Randi, masterfully portrayed by Michelle Williams. Without spoiling the content of the dialogue, I have to confess that I’ve never seen quite as raw or emotional of a conversation played out in cinema. It never feels melodramatic, nor does it offer a sense of catharsis; it’s just a heart-wrenching can’t-look-away punch to the affective stomach. I heard quiet sniffles throughout my theater, then noticed that my own nose was running, tears streaming down my cheeks. I hadn’t even noticed I was crying; the scene discretely devastated me. Williams’ ever-so-brief performance in Manchester by the Sea will almost certainly obtain a plethora of well-deserved award nominations and wins–she’s a remarkable young actress who serves as the brief picture of unobtainable hope for both Lee and the audience.

Through the subtle, complex script and direction of Kenneth Lonergan, as well as the grey-and-blue environment of the titular coastal town, Manchester by the Sea offers a meditation on what it means to continue to live when the best parts of you feel dead, and how when in the grip of grief, it can sometimes be hard to let go. Frederick Buechner once wrote this about the spirituality of tears: “Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay closest attention…. More often than not God is speaking to you through them of the mystery of where you have come from and is summoning you to where, if your soul is to be saved, you should go next.” Manchester by the Sea explores this tearful spiritual journey with pathos, authenticity, and perhaps a sense of gloomy grace.

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