Manchester By The Sea: A Death In The Family

Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is a brooding man who leads a solitary life in Boston as a handyman. One winter’s day he receives a call summoning him back to his hometown. He comes back oblivious to the fact that his brother named him to be his nephew’s guardian if anything were to happen, god forbid. His brother (Kyle Chandler) has a history of heart problems and is now dead, leaving a son to care for in his wake. As if losing his only sibling was not enough, to add insult to injury, he has to care for his adolescent nephew and through this turn of events, old wounds are opened forcing Lee to come to terms with his past and the reasons he left this town.

Films like this don’t come around everyday, certainly in the endless deluge of Hollywood blockbusters that I seem to be seeing left, right and centre. What’s more, it takes a considerable amount of effort that can touch the souls of so many people, regardless of age, gender, religion or race. One of the best things about this film is how it utilises highly depressing themes. It doesn’t flood audiences with melancholy, but instead contrasts this sad aura with comedy. That is down to intelligent to writing and a low-key feel good factor that seeps in at the right times.

Patrick Chandler (Lucas Hedges) with his uncle, Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck)
(Manchester By The Sea, Roadside Attractions)

The opposing tones of this film are balanced by the ins and outs of the relationships between the different characters. Much alike crime shows such as Happy Valley or Broadchruch, this film is set in a small town where everybody knows everybody. There’s no such thing as a secret and everybody knows everybody’s business. Affleck’s Lee has to readjust himself to the situation. He’s been away for a long time and it takes him some getting used to. As an actor, he’s taken his game to new heights. As a viewer, you can see Affleck has worked hard to get into this role and it’s paid off. For better or worse, Casey Affleck is Lee Chandler.

Manchester By The Sea has no fear of making audiences work and testing our patience with consistent transitions between past and present. Though, these jumps are necessary to the story and character development and their motivations. One of the many lessons in storytelling is “show not tell” and they’ve done this superbly in this film. From a storytelling standpoint, I am struggling to find issue with it. From a filmic perspective, I really liked its lack of close-ups and how it films most of the picture from afar which is a reflection of Lee’s emotionally detached personality.

Randi Chandler (Michelle Williams) and family friend, George (C.J. Wilson)
(Manchester By The Sea, Roadside Attractions)

It’s only in the second half of the film that we find out why Lee is such an asshole to everyone. As redemption stories go, this is one of the most soul-destroying I’ve ever seen. From that point on, we see the world as Lee sees it. The violent activities in his head are a direct contrast to the tranquil seaside town in which the story is set. In relation to this, I almost forgot that this story is set in the United States. It’s filmed in Massachussets but this specific setting looks very much like the seaside towns of Great Britain. If it weren’t for the accents of the characters, I would have assumed we were on the coasts of England.

Regardless of the subject matter, there’s warmth in this film. It is a story about confronting one’s demons but it’s also about family, relationships and identity. There’s a great rapport between Affleck’s Lee and Hedges’ Patrick, in their many humorous encounters. Due to his coldness, Lee is a useless caregiver, who in turn takes lets Pat take liberties, especially when it comes to chasing girls and trying to get laid. I have to be honest, I disliked Patrick the most in the movie, purely on the basis that he treats women like they’re his personal objects. That said, it’s portrayed in a way that stereotypes sixteen year old boys as sex addicts. Well, I guess there’s humour in that and this one of the most realistic depiction of teens ever put to film.

The relationship between Lee (Affleck) and Randi (Williams) is explored really well
(Manchester By The Sea, Roadside Attractions)

If you have ever lost someone close to you or have children, I advise that you bring a box of tissues with you to the cinema. This is a tearjerker for sure and one of the most thought-provoking yet sincere portrayals of family and loss since Bayona’s The Impossible. With excellent performances and stunning cinematography, Manchester By The Sea is a must watch and one to look out for this awards season.

A film for fans of cinema, not the masses