Grief is often exploited the same way in Hollywood dramas. Characters who experience it suppress it for as long as they can, struggling to cope with it through increasing doses of internal and external outrage before delivering a heart-wrenching soliloquy that finally allows them breathe comfortably again. Kenneth Lonergan is one of the few directors out there who understands that not all who grieve find it in themselves to get over it via one-take monologues that win over awards season voters. "Manchester by the Sea" explores grief in a profoundly understated way, featuring solid performances all around, and isn't afraid to see the humor that can emerge from heartbreak. Come for the laughs, but be prepared to leave with a few tears.
When he's not mending pipes and unclogging toilets for homeowners, Boston handyman Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) turns his head away from everyone around him. He is antisocial enough to prefer engaging in drunken fist fights rather than take a girl home from the bar at night. But we soon learn through flashbacks (which play more like memories recalled by Lee himself) that he wasn't born this way. Upon hearing the news that his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has died from heart failure and that he has been made legal guardian of Joe's son Patrick (Lucas Hedges), Lee returns to his hometown to deal with this new tragedy and look after his nephew. The re-emergence of his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams), as well as Patrick's estranged mother Elise (Gretchen Mol), further complicate the repressed emotions of both Lee and Patrick as they do what they can to keep their heads above water.
"Manchester by the Sea" is, more than anything, about its central performances, but Lonergan's script has more on its mind than exploring the depths of Lee's anguish and Patrick's development post-paternal-mortem. Condolences offered by their friends, family and doctors are, while sincere, innately awkward and uncomfortable. Anyone who has lost someone close know this to be true, and Lonergan expertly connects Lee's sorrow to our own experiences with remarkable subtlety. Lee is incredibly ambivalent toward these procedural condolences, reacting standoffishly or with intense hostility, and he has every right to do so.
Editing also plays a vital role in communicating Lee's discomfort, as well as his inner confrontation with himself. Notice how, in an early scene where Lee visits the hospital and talks to doctors and nurses about his brother, Lonergan makes a few awkward cuts around their conversation. It's an obviously unpleasant occasion for Lee, but deep down he would like nothing more than just to see the body and leave. This cutting on emotion is prevalent, but it is at its most powerful in a pivotal scene where Lee suddenly becomes Patrick's guardian. Lee's memories of his past life pop up throughout, but this is where they attack him relentlessly. Lonergan speeds up the back-and-forth between past and present as Lee struggles to keep his most horrible memories at bay. It is the most heart-wrenching scene in the entire film.
It also showcases Affleck's very best work, but it certainly doesn't undermine the rest of his performance. It's easy to commend an actor for projecting so much feeling with little dialogue and intense physical restraint, but Affleck taps into a very clear set of emotions without overplaying subtlety. His character choices are natural and fluid, forming one of the year's best performances. Hedges has a number of great scenes, most of them allowing him to play it for humor (which is sort of what Patrick tends to do), but when a scene calls for more nuance, he stands on footing equal to Affleck. Patrick may be a more social person than Lee, but he is just as uncomfortable about the grieving process as he is. To see the two of them stumble their way through this messy ordeal is quite something.