Manchester by the Sea is the poster child for the “slice of life” drama. Not because the story is one of everyday happenings; the tragedy here is (thankfully) a rare thing. But because the events play out as if they were occurring to real people. Kenneth Lonergan’s film is just as funny, awkward, heart-breaking, and uplifting as our everyday lives. There is no easy closure, no characters who are merely cyphers for this or that theme, no barnstorming monologue that wraps everything up in a neat package. Instead, we have a fiction being played by what could easily be mistaken for actual people.
Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is merely existing as a custodian in a Boston apartment building. He jury-rigs the tenants’ plumbing as their lives go on about him, but never include him. He speaks in short sentences, monosyllables when he can. Lee used to be happy. He used to joke around with his brother and nephew in their hometown of Manchester (USA, not UK). But then Something Bad happened, and now Lee isn’t happy anymore.
Affleck doesn’t so much inhabit the role of Lee, as give birth to Lee as a fully formed human being. Lee is a complete character, and a broken person. His voice has the slightly cracked sound of someone not used to talking a great deal. There are a lot of awkward silences in Manchester by the Sea, and Lee is the kind of man who lives in awkward silences; he doesn’t necessarily enjoy them, but they are he feels most comfortable (or least uncomfortable). When we learn what lurks in Lee’s past, it is devastating, and it explains everything.
While shovelling snow outside his building, Lee gets a call from the hospital. His brother has died. And, unbeknownst to Lee, he has been named his nephew’s legal guardian in his brother’s will. Patrick (Lucas Hedges) is a gregarious, strong-willed sixteen year old. He’s on the hockey team, the basketball team, he has two girlfriends, and he’s in a band. Lee is totally unprepared to be his guardian.
Manchester by the Sea shines when Affleck and Hedges are on screen together. There is a lot of comedy here for a film that isn’t billed as a comedy, and much of that is courtesy of the comic duo that is Lee and Patrick. Lee is the reticent straight man to Patrick’s deadpan snarker. The comedy drips in from elsewhere as well, with half-buried one liners any full blown comedy would be proud to have. There is even a narrow vein of pitch black humour, as a scene of inconceivable tragedy is invaded by something approaching slapstick.
Manchester by the Sea isn’t a complete barrel of laughs, however. We’re dealing with weighty issues here, of grief and guilt. Or at least we’re watching people deal with these issues. Lonergan’s camera is something of a voyeur, an outside observer reluctant to involve itself. It hovers on the edge of conversations, sits at the periphery of a scene. Lee owns three photographs in picture frames. We never see the photographs themselves; instead we just see Lee looking at them. It is from Affleck’s performance that we can tell that they are important. Later, at a pivotal moment, Patrick comes across the photographs. Again, Lonergan refuses to take us in closer. Again, it is only through Hedges’ performance that we understand that an understanding has been reached.
That is Lonergan’s film in a nutshell. No easy answers, no convenient closure. Just like real life. That is what makes this such a remarkable film. We don’t get into the characters heads; they are merely presented to us, virtues, vices and all. The story’s conclusion isn’t the one we want, but it is the one we could expect. Manchester by the Sea is art imitating life. It is real life, in all its funny, awkward, heart-breaking, uplifting glory.