A death in the family brings a taciturn handyman back to the hometown he left years ago, when a tragedy robbed him of everything good in his life, in “Manchester by the Sea.”
Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, the film is a quietly sad, yet consistently entertaining drama about loss, grief, and connection in a working-class Massachusetts family.
Lonergan, who also made “You Can Count on Me,” and “Margaret,” again tells a story of people deeply affected by a traumatic event. He has entwined a present-day narrative with flashback sequences somewhat in the manner of Atom Egoyan’s jigsaw stories like “The Sweet Hereafter,” but with fresh, well-defined characters and a story all his own.
In Quincy, near Boston, Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is an emotionally broken maintenance worker who unclogs toilets and paints walls, lives alone in a shabby apartment, and tends to communicate by picking fights in bars. He’s forced to interact with the world when the death of his older brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), of heart disease, prompts his return to the film’s briny title city, where he makes funeral arrangements and visits estate attorneys.
Lee gets a jolt when leaning that, per Joe’s instructions, he has been named the legal guardian of Patrick (Lucas Hedges), Joe’s 15-year-old son. Lee rejects that plan, and Patrick agrees. A high-school hockey jock and budding rock star with two girlfriends, he has no desire to move to Quincy with his joyless uncle.
Yet Lee chaperones Patrick around town, and they form a rocky but meaningful bond as they struggle to decide where Patrick should spend the rest of his juvenile life.
Flashbacks enrich the story: Lee, Joe, and a young Patrick appear in happy mode; Lee also is a family man living with a wife (Michelle Williams) and three children.
About halfway through, Lonergan reveals the terrible incident that changed everything.
The film isn’t an emotional knockout. Lonergan’s free-flowing, messy storytelling, while capturing the untidiness of life, can prove counterproductive over 137 minutes. Details about everyday life start feeling excessive.
Still, it’s a deeply human drama about wounded people who continue to endure and about connections that infuse the journey with hope and humor. (“Am I supposed to tell you to use a condom?,” Lee trying to be a father figure, asks his sexually active nephew.)
Lonergan doesn’t write dialogue that spells out details of the harrowing event. He leaves it to outstanding actors to convey the effect of the experience via facial expression and body language.
Affleck, as the bottled-up Lee, creates a quietly intense portrait of a repressed man carrying immense pain beneath the surface. Hedges, in an excellent supporting turn, is a fireball of young energy. Williams, with minimal screen time, is elegantly emotional as a woman trying to move on while unable to shake the past.
C.J. Wilson, as Joe’s pal George, Gretchen Mol, as Joe’s ex-wife and Patrick’s recovering-alcoholic mother, Elise, and Lonergan regular Matthew Broderick, as Elise’s born-again new husband, round out the cast.
Manchester by the Sea
three and a half stars
Starring Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler
Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan
Running time 2 hours, 17 minutes