There are safe tear-jerkers, like TV’s “This Is Us” (where we kind of chuckle at the fact that it makes us cry), and then there are brutal ones, like “Manchester by the Sea” (2016, now streaming on Amazon Prime), the first film from writer-director Kenneth Lonergan since 2011’s bizarrely underrated “Margaret.”
As is his wont, Lonergan plays viewers’ emotions like a symphony conductor, but always with respect for the reality of what his characters are going through. Set and filmed in and near the Massachusetts coastal town of the title, it chronicles Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), a sullen Boston handyman who wears an expression more blank than Dylan in “Bates Motel.”
We sympathize with the rude tenants he has to deal with, and support him when he tells them to f*** off. He seems utterly beaten by life, but occasionally, violence explodes out of him; don’t look at this guy sideways after he’s had a few drinks. Then again, we can’t really dislike the guy, as his brother Joe (“Friday Night Lights’ “ Kyle Chandler) has just died.
Lee learns Joe has appointed him as the guardian of his teenage son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), but he balks at the task because he’d have to move from Boston to Manchester.
As we wrestle with our conflicted feelings about Lee, “Manchester” functions as somewhat of a mystery. Why is Lee the way he is? Why can’t he live in his hometown again? The mystery deepens with flashback scenes of Lee making house with wife Randi (Michelle Williams) and their three kids. Eventually, we see the moment that made Lee this way, and it’s brutal. I’m not going to say what happens – ostensibly so as not to spoil it, but also because it’s hard to even write about.
Many films take viewers on an emotional journey, but “Manchester” shows us Lee at such a low point that you wonder how he can climb out of it. Deftly, Lonergan doesn’t bring Lee all the way back, but he brings him back as far as is plausible, and that’s enough to complete the symphony. This is one of those films that just kind of ends, because it’s not plot-oriented; rather, the visual symphony is over and we must reflect on what we’ve seen. As we reflect, Lonergan show us some beautiful shots of Manchester to soothe us.
The cast is asked to perform many heartbreakingly real moments that most writer-directors don’t delve into, although sanitized versions of such scenes are found in many films: The truth in the hospital room of Joe being diagnosed with heart disease, the truth of Patrick learning of his dad’s death from Lee at hockey practice, the truth of Lee and Patrick visiting the body in the morgue. But also: The truth of forgetting where you parked; Lonergan allows us to come up for air now and then.
Side characters such as Patrick’s friends and girlfriends, Patrick’s alcoholic mom, and Joe’s fishing buddy enrich the tale. Not exactly a funny film, “Manchester” finds the occasional laugh along with its bevy of sobering moments – often alternating between the moods: Patrick tries to make time with his girlfriend while, downstairs, Lee drives the girl’s mom batty with his morose silence.
“Manchester” is a pastiche of little moments, some of which have nothing to do with the bigger picture. For example, what’s with the harsh way Patrick’s garage band treats the drummer? Maybe there’s a whole ‘nother movie about that kid, but the point is not to show that movie, it’s to place “Manchester” in a world where everyone has a story, at least a small one.
In a film full of strong turns, Williams is devastating despite having only a few scenes, and as has happened several times since “Dawson’s Creek” ended (see also “Blue Valentine,” for instance), I marvel that she has proven to be far and away the most talented actor to come out that teen TV classic. And Affleck is right there with her, particularly in a chance meeting on the street late in the movie.
If you decide to embark on “Manchester by the Sea,” don’t merely have Kleenex handy, be prepared to be shaken. It’s not exactly a film I want to watch again, but it is a masterpiece of character creation. Then again, I do kind of want to revisit “Margaret,” and Lonergan’s next film will be on my radar, too.