Manchester by the sea, the nomination-heavy film by director Kenneth Longerhan, is a beautiful soul-crusher; a powerful nod to the hopelessness of loss.
We meet Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) as he drifts through a mundane life, by day an apathetic handyman, by night loathingly drowning in liquor. Flashbacks hint at a lost character, embracing life with boyish affection. Something dark has transformed this witty, likeable man into the haunted void of a figure that makes for such uncomfortable viewing.
When an untimely event wrenches Lee back to his hometown, his story becomes enmeshed with his teenage nephew’s (Lucas Hedges). What the pair face, though tragic, seems somewhat manageable. In fact, you could imagine it the plot of some 2-star American rom-com: the misfit bachelor thrust into responsibility, adapting in some frustrating yet loveable way. But an even more staggeringly awful tragedy lays beneath, clutching our lead in the inescapable depths of sadness. We watch him desperately try to run from his past, hiding in apathy rather than confronting pain.
The beauty of the film lies in its unshowy naturalism. A slow burner with just enough to keep you interested, nothing is over-done or pushy. And despite the trauma carried throughout the film, there are moments of real humour. Longerhan knows that life doesn’t fit into a genre, that there’s laughter in the face of sadness. The acting is magnificent and the cast are racking up nominations: through Affleck’s masterful portrayal of pure sadness, Lee is a ghost who hasn’t died yet; Hedges’ perfectly plays a teen’s reaction to difficulty, and despite her brief screen time Michelle Williams’ emotive performance as Lee’s ex-wife is one you’ll remember.
Longerhan’s film is far too real to offer any real redemption for Lee, but we’re gifted moments that let our hearts cling to the possibility of the blanket fog letting in some light. A devastatingly powerful scene with ex-wife Randi tears at Lee’s shield revealing a glimpse of his silenced emotion, offering a chance at redemption that Lee can’t yet accept.
Grief isn’t a constant, it ebbs and flows. Real life offers no Hollywood ending, we end up somewhere much more mundane and it takes a lot longer than 2 hours 17 minutes. Manchester by the sea is probably the most realistic portrayal of grief and depression in mainstream cinema. Lee’s growth is subtle but momentous. We let go of our pains gradually, or not at all.