“Manchester by the Sea” – Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is a loner. He works in Boston as a custodian for three apartment buildings and conveniently lives in a small, one-bedroom place on the premises, where he generally keeps to himself at the end of a long workday. Each day, Lee makes house calls to hopefully solve various tenants’ issues, like overflowing toilets, faulty lighting or anything else. He is hard-working, skilled, well-spoken, and communicative, and his tenants (usually) appreciate his stopgap efforts.
Lee is a loner, but a conscientious one.
On the other and, when faced with a difficult decision, Lee noticeably places the ball back into the other person’s court and says, “It’s up to you.”
He offers this retort in one of the first scenes, and it struck this audience member as odd, because this very capable person quickly deflects any responsibility regarding a fairly routine decision. Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan delivers this moment in Mr. Martinez’s (Richard Donelly) apartment as a telltale warning shot about Lee’s makeup that is later painfully revealed in one of the best films of 2016.
Lonergan, an immensely talented filmmaker, has only made two other movies, “You Can Count on Me” (2000) and “Margaret” (2011), but both pictures are near masterpieces in capturing the conflict between two family members with very different points of view. In both of his previous films, the older family member is more stable, but deals with her own set of issues, while the younger one struggles for direction but resists receiving counsel.
Lonergan follows a similar pattern in “Manchester by the Sea”. Lee receives custody of his late-brother’s teenage son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), and a gigantic responsibility is literally staring at his face, after previously and successfully avoiding every obligation – both big and small – for quite some time. The picture successfully works on two fronts, and both are manned by Affleck’s outstanding, soulful and Oscar-worthy performance.
First, with the abrupt life change – now – at the center of Lee’s current existence, he needs to work with Patrick. Is Lee going to accept becoming Patrick’s full-time guardian? In the meantime, how will he parent him? How does he deal with a sometimes combustible teenager, and how does he choose between a potential new life in a small, New England town living versus his current life in Boston? Lee is an obvious lost soul in Boston, but free of any ties and accountability. The narrative explores their relationship through a lengthy – but absorbing – series of everyday events, such as school pickups and house rules about girls staying overnight. These conflicts are completely new to Lee and difficult for Patrick who just lost his father.
The rich script keeps the routine from feeling routine, as feelings percolate between uncle and nephew and sometimes explode from beneath the previously held-together surface.
Secondly, the emotional quotients remain high, because the film frequently flashes back to Lee’s past: his days as a loving husband to Randi (Michelle Williams) and a father to three small children. While we watch the struggle in present day, our curiosity is peaked concerning Lee’s travels from happy family man to broken spirit. Some event or series of events led to his current lifestyle choices, and we fear the catalyst could be terribly ominous.
“Manchester by the Sea” is also the exact name of a town where Lee, his brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler) and Patrick frequently fished, but the film itself does not have to fish for emotion. It openly presents an ordinary, extended family under duress from two massive issues, and Herculean efforts and courage are needed to weather the figurative storms. The impacts of current decisions and past demons pour on the screen, and two souls from the Chandler clan hang in the balance.
This is no time for Lee’s standard response of “It’s up to you.”
In reality, this emotional grinder of a picture clearly conveys that it should be up to them.