Manchester By The Sea, Reluctant Guardian Reflecting on Loss

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Casey Affleck

Casey Affleck in a picture by Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea

Golden Globe Award Winner for Best Actor and nominated for an Academy Award in the same category, Casey Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a 40-year old janitor working and living in the basement apartment of a group of traditional historic apartment blocks in Boston when we first meet him, in the Academy Award nominated independent film by writer-director Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea.

Lee Chandler suffers constant abuse from the tenants on a daily basis, especially when he tells them about the expensive repairs required to keep their investment in tip-top shape. All throughout these encounters we can see that he’s really struggling, holding himself totally aloof, as he answers back.

Hurt is deeply etched into the lines of his face. It is as if he is on a slow simmer, where just below the surface bubbling constantly away the tightly wound Lee Chandler has an inner ‘white’ rage, one that he keeps bottled up, as he tries to maintain some sort of balance between his professional and personal life.

He manages to do this successfully until informed about the sudden death of his elder brother Jo (Kyle Chandler), who lives in Manchester by the Sea a picturesque seaside town on the north shore of Massachusetts, where they were born and grew up. Suddenly his world goes topsy-turvey.

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Casey Affleck in a picture by Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea

Going back to his hometown, at least in the short term, is the only way Lee can pay respect to Jo the brother he loves as he is the only one left to help finalize his estate and attend to family matters, although we already sense there is going to be a very high price for him to pay.

Don’t read any more if you don’t want some spoilers.

Despite taking place in a town full of visually gorgeous historic American gingerbread timber houses and spectacular scenery the story related in Manchester by the Sea is not a pretty one. Deeply affecting, this is one of those films you think about long after you have seen it.

In fact all around me at the preview, people were sobbing aloud as Lee is forced to deal with the aftermath of truly terrible events that happened nearly a decade ago, which also separated him from Randi (Michelle Williams), the woman he loved.

Moving back and forwards we learn about Lee’s life in batches gradually beginning to understand his state of mind.

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Kyle Chandler as Jo Chandler and Casey Affleck as Lee Chandler in a picture by Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea

You could say Kenneth Lonergan successfully draws us into putting ourselves inside his main character’s skin, and as presented so brilliantly by Casey Affleck, it is very uncomfortable.

Lee Chandler has suffered extreme trauma, terrible tragedy, ongoing grief and truly awful loss and while he has since done his best to work through all the human emotions integral to his own defining experience, he seems to have suffered far more than most.

His family collectively is also going through a trauma of its own, including his Dad having lost his wife. They have all known for some time now that his brother Jo, who is certainly Lee’s rock, will not enjoy longevity having discovered after collapsing one day, he has a congenital heart condition.

This means he will certainly die at a young age and coming to terms with that fact causes Jo’s wife to turn to drink and eventually leave he and young Patrick to their own devices.

Back in the present Lee has an appointment with his brother’s lawyer about Jo’s will and finds out that without discussing it with him, Jo has already set the legal issues in place, including immediate monetary considerations, to allow Lee to move from Boston back to Manchester by the Sea permanently to be Patrick’s parent until his nephew turns 18.

In his own way Jo was attempting to help his brother Lee to deal with his own extremely painful past, by giving him the responsibility for his son after he dies, hoping they would be able to help each other through the extreme grief process.

But will it work.

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Kyle Chandler as Jo, Casey Affleck as Lee and Ben O’Brien as Young Patrick in a picture by Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea

Lee and his sixteen-year-old nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) once had a special relationship. However that was a decade ago (Ben O’Brien as Young Patrick) when he, Jo and Lee regularly went fishing together on the boat that becomes a mainstay in all their lives.

Basically Lee and Patrick still get on well, although Lee hasn’t seen his nephew for some time now and has to become re-acquainted with the gangling young man.

Patrick is kept busy negotiating his own awakening, as he met morphs from being a typical challenging teenager into being a fully fledged responsible young adult.

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Casey Affleck as Lee Chandler and Lucas Hedges as Patrick Chandler, in a picture by Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea

Patrick is sixteen years old, sarcastic, wise cracking, he’s a young man who looks up to his uncle on one plane, while taking him down and for a ride when it suits him on the other. He’s already found his mother online and communicates with her by email, unbeknown to anyone else.

Strong minded in some respects, Patrick is also a bit of a star on the school ice hockey team. He has got himself involved with two girls; simultaneous relationships that he carries on regardless, not even pausing for one moment or one night to grieve his father’s passing.

All the adults in the audience know it’s only a matter of time until this particular bubble bursts for young Patrick, a warm loving personality who is unsure when he should show how he really feels.

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Michelle Williams as Randi Chandler and Casey Affleck as Lee Chandler in a picture by Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea

Deeply moving, quietly powerful with an outstanding performance from Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea is filled with humanity and humour.

Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler and Lucas Hedges are all stunning in their supporting roles, telling a story that is in so many ways so privately and personally difficult to relate it physically hurts.

On the water and on the land the storyline of Manchester by the Sea will press many buttons, and it may even haunt your dreams.

The message it delivers so succinctly is that some of those stories that make up our life are indeed complicated. While we may learn to live with the implications of some of the terrible and tragic things that happen to us, for many the hurt is far too deep and remains impossible to forget, ensuring we remain forever scarred.


Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2017

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