Manchester by the Sea is a small town in Essex County, Massachusetts. Life there, at least in winter, is quiet. Still even. But often stillness masks great depth. That's how it is in Kenneth 'You Can Count On Me' Lonergan's heartbreaking film of loss, family, and responsibility named for the town.
Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is a taciturn janitor in the suburbs of Boston who spends his evenings drinking alone and getting into punch ups with strangers. He's clearly a troubled man but what those troubles are won't become apparent until much later in the film. I'm certainly not going to tell you.
Called back to Manchester by the Sea after the death of his brother, the affable rock Joe (played with an understated charm by Kyle Chandler), he finds himself having to look after his 16 year old nephew Patty. The huge upheaval in both their lives present them with palpable tensions that aren't easily resolved. Sometimes they simmer. Sometimes they boil over. Always there is a quiet, if grudging, respect between the pair.
Extended family and local community members find themselves involved in conversations relating to Joe's funeral or what will become of the family fishing business. Even minor characters are given the courtesy of being fully drawn. Nobody in this film is a cipher. Each character has flaws as much as they have virtues. Always they act realistically.
There's no great cathartic moment, no magical solutions. Simply ordinary people living through extraordinary events. The sort of extraordinary events we all, at some point in our lives, find ourselves confronted with. How the primary characters cope with what happens to them and how they make sense of their lives are what make up the emotional crux of the film.
It's a grown up film with grown up themes. Yet Lucas Hedges, only 20 years old, as Patty is never out of his depth. He plays the 16 year old as a beguiling mix of confidence and vulnerability that seems entirely in keeping with how teenage life is actually lived. He fumbles around with girls, plays guitar in an enthusiastic, if amateur, indie rock group, and plays ice hockey with his mates. But he still relies on Uncle Lee to drive him about and he's still quite clearly in the very early stages of a grief that will never entirely leave him.
Casey Affleck is equally brilliant as Lee. As moody and mumbling as you'd expect he's not initially easy to warm to but as the flashback scenes, that do so much of the film's heavy lifting, reveal his back story you find yourself warming to this emotionally constipated man who appears to, though doesn't, lack empathy. It seems like a tough trick to pull off but Affleck manages it. His rare moments of positivity shine as bright as the sunshine through the denuded branches of the trees that line the streets him and Patty walk in the cold.
Michelle Williams as Lee's ex-wife Randi is not in the film that much but the few scenes she's in are both vital and amongst the film's most powerful. Williams is utterly magnetic in this role. It's six years since, alongside Ryan Gosling in Blue Valentine, she ripped my heart open and she's repeated it here. The scenes she shares with Affleck are loaded with history, guilt, and regret. A lifetime's worth of emotion condensed into a minute or two. They're both very attractive people but that doesn't mean they're easy to watch.
The supporting cast deserve their share of kudos too. From C J Wilson as George, the family friend who's always there in an emergency, to Kara Hayward as Silvie, the singer in Patty's band, a band that labour under the faintly ludicrous name Stentorian. There's even a cameo for Matthew Broderick as the god fearing new husband of Joe's ex-wife. Ferris Bueller starts to look a very long time ago.
Manchester by the Sea is undoubtedly a very sad film yet, oddly, there's plenty of genuinely funny lines (Hedges gets the lion's share). In that respect it's not unlike life itself. To be fully human is to be able to process, and feel, a whole range of emotions. When attempting to represent that humanity in celluloid form it seems to be a good idea to do the same. It's an incredibly powerful film indeed that can have you, within a minute, both laughing out loud and wiping tears from your cheeks. I came. I saw. I wept. In case you haven't guessed I liked it.