'Manchester by the Sea' is true to intricacies of family strife

'Sea' stars Casey Affleck as a handyman who unexpectedly becomes the unwilling legal guardian of his 16-year-old nephew. A scene between Affleck and Michelle Williams is the strongest in any movie this year.

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Lucas Hedges and Casey Affleck appear in a scene from ‘Manchester by the Sea.’

“Manchester by the Sea,” written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, is a movie about unremitting grief and yet it has a boisterousness, a comic twirl, that makes it much truer to the zigzags of life than most similarly themed movies that simply pile on the gloom.

Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) works as a handyman in the Boston area and lives alone in a drab apartment. He is not a stranger to bar fights. In a few, brief ocean-fishing flashbacks, we glimpse who this sullen, seething man once was: a gregarious companion to his brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), and Joe’s son, Patrick (played wonderfully in the present-day scenes by Lucas Hedges). The reasons for the disconnect between Lee’s then and now are revealed slowly, almost teasingly. Lonergan wants us to get a fix on this man’s temper before he fills it in. 

When, at about the first hour mark, we learn the family tragedy that created Lee’s condition, it’s like finding the missing piece in a puzzle, except that Lonergan is not constructing a detective story here. He’s too comprehensive a dramatist for anything so facile. The mysteries in this movie are the mysteries of human nature.

The crux of the narrative is that, early on, Joe dies suddenly of a heart attack, and Lee, to his astonishment, finds himself appointed the unwilling legal guardian of his now 16-year-old nephew. (Patrick’s mother, played by Gretchen Mol in a cameo, has flown the coop.) Returning to Manchester by the Sea, the Massachusetts coastal community where he grew up and where his brother lived, he finds himself mightily at odds with his surroundings and many of its inhabitants. 

The reason for Lee’s throttling discomfort is not simply that his life is suddenly and uninvitingly upended, or that his unruly nephew wants nothing to do with the new arrangement. It’s that Lee is forced to confront once again the circumstances of the tragedy he has been attempting, in his walled-off way, to smother. Even if he were not so inchoate, he would not have the words to express his hurts. And yet, as the film goes on, his inarticulateness achieves a kind of eloquence. Lonergan is a distinguished playwright (“This Is Our Youth”) with two previous films to his credit – the mangled, affecting “Margaret” and his first, the marvelous “You Can Count on Me,” which featured Mark Ruffalo in a breakthrough role that is blood brother to Affleck’s Lee. He has an ear for the cadences of the small talk that actually reveals much more than most big talk. He captures the way this ingrained community is a kind of extended family, with all the rifts and snipes and kindnesses laid bare. Lee fled Manchester by the Sea to avoid the judgmental scrutiny and now he is thrust back into this everyday maelstrom in all its wintry bleakness.

I don’t mean to suggest that “Manchester by the Sea,” with its overload of woe, is an unremitting downer. I opened this review by saying that the film had a boisterous comic twirl, and this is particularly welcome because not only does it provide an ample and much-needed respite from the sorrow, it also does justice to the full range of the human comedy. (Lonergan, in some sequences, invites comparison with another Irish-American playwright, Eugene O’Neill, who also sometimes invoked a rude laughter in the darkness.) The scenes between Lee and Patrick, who plays in a basement rock band and has a pair of girlfriends he keeps blissfully unaware of each other, are as believable as anything I’ve seen in the movies about surrogate fathers and sons. All the skirmishes, large and petty, are here.

Although this is primarily a movie about men and the ways in which they take out their grievances, the women, especially Lee’s ex-wife, Randi, played superlatively well by Michelle Williams, are given their due. The strongest scene in the movie – it’s the strongest scene in any movie I’ve seen all year – comes near the end, when Randi and Lee have a fleeting reunion and both, in their own stumbling, beseeching way, ask forgiveness. I thought that, up until this point, Affleck, good as he is, sometimes overdid the brittle cheerlessness, but in this sequence, the full measure of his performance comes through. 

“Manchester by the Sea” is not a movie that scavenges for quick and easy resolutions. If most of its people achieve redemption, it is not something they actively seek, or even want. Because Lonergan is so true to the intricacies and rhythms of family strife, we trust his vision. When it comes time for the fade-out, he doesn’t gussy up sorrow with a sunrise glow. Healing is hard. Grade: A (Rated R for language throughout and some sexual content.)

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