“Manchester By The Sea” is a masterful study of indescribable grief. A life destroyed and the slow regenerative, green shoot healing power of family is at the heart of this immensely poignant, emotional film, directed and written by Kenneth Lonergan.
If I had to describe the film as an inanimate object then imagine a broken vase, pieced roughly back together with blood, sweat, tears, some twine, a bandage, one bandaid, lots of brute force and as much love as there is to spare. Once this precarious, damaged, misshapen pot is finally standing, from certain angles little chinks and shards of light glint through, you can’t see too many, but enough to know that whilst the scars are obvious, there is hope. This is how the whole film made me feel by the end.
We meet the star, Casey Affleck as Lee, a janitor who lives and works in Boston, as he skirts around the edges of his life, remaining on the perimeter and bursting with an anger we don’t yet understand. There are no obvious happy endings or life lessons here to be learnt. Lee is horrified to discover that he has become the guardian of his 16 year old nephew and through flashbacks, we are increasingly drawn in to share the abject horror of Lee’s trauma. It is as if we are in his brain as the memories unfold and the more we know, the more we feel his incredibly raw pain. His pain is tangible, slow and aching. The numbing, silent language of grief and loss. He can’t make small talk and the scenes like the funeral of his brother, where we hear no words, just see raw emotions or mouths moving is highly effective. There is no need for talking. We understand how they must all be feeling.
Lucas Hedges plays 16 year old Patrick brilliantly and the relationship he has with Lee is fascinating to watch. Patrick deals with his grief differently. He does what a lot of people do and gets busy. Fills his day with the distractions of youth; band practice, girls, parties, school, instead of sitting with it. We know they have a deep bond because we’ve seen them together on the boat – the place they love the most back in the early days when everything was different – their “happy place”. It is a genius study in the raw relationships of men. The lack of communication in that cultural way we know, the violent responses, the attempts at distraction, the brutal honesty and yet, it ultimately becomes all the more tender because of it. The little glimpses of love and affection you see are huge.
If there was an additional theme running through it, perhaps it’s about the unfreezing of hearts, minds, bodies and nature. How life can be harsh, but there is always a spring and a thawing to be had.
My only complaint was with the music. Perhaps it was designed to be deeply unsettling, but it didn’t feel like it fitted. It felt jangly to my nerves. It could have done with a much more modern set of songs, but I guess that was intentional. Places it more in the timeless zone.