Manchester by the Sea

Family ties are messy sticky things.   For Lee Chambers, played by Casey Affleck, his family is associated with Manchester, a Massachusetts fishing village and a horrible tragedy that I probably shouldn’t tell you about.  To him the place is oppressive and his family that still lives there remind him too much of what happened.  Years ago, he left and is now living in Boston.  But things aren’t going well in his life.  He’s a maintenance man in an apartment complex seemingly full of annoying tenants who constantly complain about his behavior.  But he is good at fixing things and his boss knows it.  There doesn’t seem to be a way out of the mess Lee’s made of things.  And he really isn’t looking for one.

When his older brother Joe, played by Kyle Chandler dies and leaves behind a sixteen year old son, Patrick, played by Lucas Hedges, who is a little wild, Lee has to take a leave of absence from his job and go home to arrange things.  To everyone’s surprise, Joe’s will names Lee as Patrick’s guardian.

Lee is unwilling to take on the responsibility but also unwilling to shirk it.  Because of circumstances, the only alternative is to put the boy in an orphanage and Lee can’t bring himself to do it.  This is a classic set up to a human drama.

This is a film that takes it’s time.  The plot strolls along, mostly in a straight line with only the occasional detour.  There are flashbacks but they reinforce the main plot pretty well.  Time is taken for characterization and long shots of the Massachusetts coastline to provide a sense of place.

All the performances are good but Casey Affleck’s stands out as one of the best of the year.  It’s almost two roles:  Lee before the tragedy and after.  Affleck shows us the connection between the two but also the psychological break that Lee experiences.  Before tragedy Lee is a loving father and uncle.  Sure he likes to have a good time with his drinking buddies and they’re a little too loud and rowdy, but deep down he’s a good guy.  After tragedy Lee is closed off, surly and silent.  He’s a little bit scary, getting into bar fights after hours of drinking alone.  From what I’m reading Affleck is the favorite to win best actor and I suspect he’s going to deserve it.

The emotions here are muted.  There are few scenes of outright scenery chewing.  Michelle Williams as Lee’s ex-wife Randi has one and it is handled well.  There are moments of humor as well.

Manchester by the Sea is almost too low key.  If you asked me where the climax to the plot was, I’m not sure I’d be able to tell you.  But unlike a lot of indie dramas there is a definite plot and a compelling one at that.

I’d see this one in the theater just for the beautiful New England scenery.


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