Manchester By the Sea
The four most impactful words heard in Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester By the Sea” are simple, “I can’t beat it.” They are said by Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) to his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) near the end of the film after we’ve learned a lot about why Lee is so hesitant to become his nephew’s guardian after his brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), dies after years of dealing with congestive heart failure. They get to the heart of the character’s struggle with a pain and power that is impossible to get out of your head, and the central dilemma many people have in life about letting go of grief and pain they have lived with for so long. In that moment, I saw myself, and others, and was moved. When the film started out, I’ll admit that it didn’t quite seem like it would do that. Lonergan’s film started out appearing to be pure “Oscar bait,” overpraised and much ado about nothing, but by the halfway point, it had me completely and stayed that way until the final images.
Why is Lee so hesitant to take on the responsibilities of caring for Patrick, as Joe instructed? (That includes moving to Manchester from Boston, where he works as a maintenance man in an apartment complex.) The answer is difficult to boil down to a central reason, but it comes down to the fact that mentally, he can’t shoulder the weight of the responsibility. He had children with his ex-wife, Randy (the powerful Michelle Williams), but after a preventable tragedy, that changed, and he spiraled into an unbearable grief he hasn’t been able to shake. (A scene in a police station is probably some of the best work Affleck, who is brilliant in the role, has ever done.) He cares about Patrick, but he doesn’t know how to be a father anymore. Affleck’s scenes with Hedges (who matches him beat-for-beat) reveal a complicated dynamic that is loving between uncle and nephew, but ultimately clouded by grief. It’s when Lonergan reveals the film to be about the way grief and loss and consume a person that it grabbed me completely, because I’ve had some complicated bouts with loss myself after deaths of my grandparents and my father that I’ve only really been able to recognize as an adult. Watching Affleck and Hedges deal with that dance the ways they do makes for some of the most heartbreaking moments of 2016 cinema, and Lonergan makes sure it goes right to the heart.