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A Massachusetts Winter's Tale: Manchester By The Sea
Lee Chandler is not a people person, either on the clock or off it. He has deliberately distanced himself from family while working as a janitor and handyman at a series of apartment complexes in Quincy, Massachusetts. Tenants like his work, but not his attitude or his language. In Manchester By The Sea, Lee (Casey Affleck) finds himself in a position he does not want at all. One wintry day, George (C. J. Wilson), a friend of the Chandler family, calls Lee from Manchester with some bad news about Lee's fisherman brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler). By the time Lee completes the long drive there, Joe has died. As the only adult in Joe's immediate family, Lee has to make the necessary funeral arrangements. The most unwelcome news comes during a visit with Joe's lawyer, when the lawyer tells Lee that Joe named him guardian of his teen son Patrick (Lucas Hedges), whom Lee hasn't seen since he left Manchester.
Because of the financial provisions Joe made, Lee stays to take care of Patrick, who balks at the suggestion of moving to Quincy with his uncle. The thought of moving has the nephew reaching out to his estranged mother, Elise (Gretchen Mol), who has struggled with substance issues, and has married Jeffrey (Matthew Broderick), who has become a source of strong support. He becomes a little acquainted with Patrick's friends and hockey teammates, and even recommends that he build a relationship with his one girlfriend, Sandy (Anna Baryshnikov), instead of his other girlfriend, Silvie (Kara Hayward). Lee even catches up with his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams), who remarried following the tragedy that broke them. During his stay in Manchester, Lee weighs the options for both himself and his nephew.
Manchester By The Sea is a largely downbeat, but totally absorbing look at a fractured family from writer-director Kenneth Lonergan. Tragedy set the stage for Lee's departure from the town, as well as his return. The sorrow in his life very much remains, yet he makes the effort to see to Joe's wishes for this member of Joe's immediate family. Lee returns to Manchester to find how splintered the Chandler family members who stayed have become. As devastating as Joe's loss was to Lee, Lee sees how much worse loss can be when the loss hits Patrick with regards to his estrangement from Elise. Lee does what he can for his nephew, but he never takes his focus from leaving, in spite of people reaching out to him. Lonergan covered similar territory in his 2000 directorial debut, You Can Count On Me. In it, two siblings reunite after a long time apart, while the son of one of the siblings wants to learn about his biological father. Lonergan offers no easy answers as the characters struggle with their issues and their wishes. The movie's final scene, though, does suggest some change for the better.
Affleck may not be as widely known as his older brother Ben, but the younger Affleck delivers a strong performance as Lee. Lee was once a sociable and outgoing person, but that person is virtually non-existent. Lee feels a responsibility to Patrick and to Joe's wishes and estate, but he doesn't want to be around the people and memories that compelled him to leave Manchester. He spends the entire movie uneasily balancing wishes and duty. Hedges does well as a teen who's trying to find his way in adolescence, and doesn't want anything to do with Lee's plans for relocating them. Patrick needs guidance on some adult decisions, like how to keep Joe's old boat usable. Patrick may not have a parent in his life any longer, but he has friends, hockey, and a band that keep him active and interested in the community he knows as home. Williams has a small role here, but it's very effective as Randi, the ex-wife who will never stop caring about Lee, and still cares for the Chandlers as if she were still in the family. Chandler leaves a solid impact as Joe, the father and brother to whom family meant so much. Mol and Broderick also make a devastating impact in their limited appearances. Lonergan himself has a cameo as a pedestrian who criticizes Lee's treatment of Patrick.
Not only does Manchester By The Sea remind me of Lonergan's earlier film, but it also reminds me of the Oscar-winner Ordinary People, where loss takes a family in different directions. Like the Jarrett family in that movie, the extended Chandler family has a hard time connecting to those who have not died. Loss has an effect so profound, the characters don't let go of that life-changing event. One teen needs guidance, and isn't going to get that from his estranged mother. An uncle who doesn't want to be there does that, but he never loses his desire to leave. Lee Chandler has a place by the sea, but he doesn't believe it is in Manchester. The memories are too harsh, and the man who once lived there wants to live alone and take care of his own business. Still, Lee does the things he does for family, for the one person who never gave up on him needs him to do the same thing for someone besides himself.
On a scale of zero to four stars, I give Manchester By The Sea four stars. An unhappy homecoming.