On the surface, the story of Manchester by the Sea is a simple, universal one: a man returns home to deal with a death in the family, which includes the logistical consequences as well as a slew of emotions and some strained relationships.
This staggering drama written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, revels in the details, and it is the sympathetic central figure, and his intimate, complex connections with those in his life, that make this film a compelling watch.
“There is a lot of conflict, and the conflict isn’t petty although sometimes on the surface it can be, but what’s underneath it, all the subtext is about a really big thing, a huge tragedy,”said Casey Affleck, while promoting the film at the Toronto International Film Festival. His character Lee works as a janitor in Boston, but heads up north at the new of the passing of his brother. “It’s not done in a melodramatic way, though. [Writer/director] Kenny [Lonergan] is almost allergic to sentimentality, he’s trying to avoid those landmines and it keep it feeling very real. That includes the moments between the lines.”
Surrounding a shattering revelation at the heart of this film, which is told with flashbacks involving Lee’s ex-wife (Michelle Williams) and his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler), Manchester sprinkles in plenty of humour, joy, awkwardness, and warmth. All of it, though, is authentic and in sync with the rhythms of anyone’s life.
“I wasn’t around for very much rehearsal, maybe a couple days. To pull off his dialogue, it’s’ deceptively naturalistic, but it’s structured,” said Williams, who while not in a lot of scenes, has an important and fleshed-out character. That’s by design.
It seemed every action taken by Lonergan and company was with the intention of making everyone in this world real. He spoke of Affleck learning his own plumbing skills to make sure during a scene where he is fixing a boiler, that it looks authentic. In a particular moment of tragedy, Affleck told Lonergan he was unsure of how to do the scene. Lonergan told him he doesn’t need to cry if it doesn’t seem fitting.
“‘Not worried about crying,’” Affleck said according to Lonergan. “‘I just don’t know how to hold the groceries.’” Those are the moments everyone made sure to care about.
While reflecting on the past, Lee’s most pressing issue is what to do with his 16-year-old nephew, which involves figuring out where to live the rest of his life. As the movie shows more of itself, we learn of past trauma Lee is dealing with, all the while life’s moments pass along with inconsistency, laughter blending with angst, sadness mixing with hope.
These exchanges make Manchester riveting, even in it’s simplicity. “This character is trying very hard to keep everyone at bay for the rest of life if he can, and he has a nephew who refuses to let him do that,” said Lonergan, speaking of the heart of the film, where Lee and his newfound responsibility bicker and poke and prod. “He cannot not respond to this kid. They’ll have a terrible argument at the beginning of a drive, and by the end they’ve forgotten.” That is the nature of a long-established relationship dealing with tragedy and responsibility.