Falmouthian Casey Affleck as Lee Chandler. Somewhat confusingly, it also stars Kyle Chandler as Joe Chandler, Lee's not-so-old older brother, whose life is seen through flashbacks because Joe has died of congestive heart failure. The story is told in a fractured, time-jumping, nonlinear style—albeit not quite as aggressively nonlinear as "Pulp Fiction," so it's possible to put all the pieces together without too much brain strain. With Joe gone, Lee—a janitor and handyman with little income—finds himself taking care of Joe's son Patrick, who has grown into a sullen, smartass teen (Lee is no charmer himself, but it takes the movie some time to show us why) who is popular at his school, involved in many extracurriculars, and dating two girls at once. On top of dealing with his older brother's death and the fallout from that loss, Lee must deal with his own demons as we discover that his negligence caused the deaths of his children in a fire, leading to a bitter divorce. "Manchester by the Sea" is a drama on a small scale; there are no world-threatening problems to contend with. People deal with death, with life, and with each other. There were times when I wanted to punch teenage Patrick's head inside-out for his constant insolence, but that's a testament to actor Lucas Hedges's ability to portray a teen dealing with a father's death in his own way. Hedges (who seems to be channeling young Matt Damon from "Good Will Hunting") and Affleck are standouts in this film, and Michelle Williams, who plays Lee's remarried ex-wife, gets one amazing scene near the end of the film that proves just how talented she is.* I also give the movie credit for not taking the easy route and showing Lee and Patrick punching each other out in paroxysms of maladjusted rage. Both men have a violent streak, but they take out their frustrations on others outside the family, never on each other. The movie comes to no profound conclusions, no emotional crescendos; it merely ends in the everyday, and there's something very Zen about that that appeals to me. Interweaving mordant humor, dysfunction, and tragedy, "Manchester by the Sea" isn't an easy watch, but it's worth your while. Oh, and wait'll you see which actor plays Patrick's ex-alkie mother's second husband. I laughed out loud when he appeared.
*I'm still turning that scene over in my head because something doesn't quite add up. Michelle Williams's Randi ends up tearfully apologizing to Affleck's Lee for the horrible things she said after the children had died, but the movie shows none of this, none of her bitterness and anger toward Lee, so we have no proper context for her guilty feelings. For me as the viewer, it seems that Randi has nothing to apologize for: Lee, through his fatal negligence, is the clear cause of their children's deaths. If anyone had needed to apologize, it should have been Lee. Instead, he's shown providing awkward comfort and even forgiveness in the face of his wife's misery. I'm not saying Randi's misery doesn't make sense; what I'm trying to say is that the cosmic scales of justice are clearly tipped in her favor, and Lee is the one who ought to be on his knees and blubbering, begging Randi for her forgiveness. It's almost as if the movie were making a conscious effort not to give us those emotional peaks found in most other films. Oh, there's screaming and punching and plenty of bile, but never at the most dramatically crucial junctures, and I find that interesting.