This is the third feature film from not-especially-prolific writer/director Kenneth Lonergan, following the lovely You Can Count on Me and the overrated Margaret. Like its predecessors, Manchester by the Sea explores what happens to ordinary people after tragedy strikes. It does so with honesty and a scruffy, foul-mouthed grace, even if its story unfurls over familiar ground.
Casey Affleck is Lee, a taciturn Boston janitor who gets the news that his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has died from a heart condition. Lee returns to his seaside hometown of Manchester, Massachusetts to make funeral arrangements, only to discover that Joe had named him guardian of his 16-year-old son Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Together, Lee and his nephew must adapt to their new reality, and to each other. The situation is not helped by Patrick's desire to return to his mundane teenage pursuits, or by Lee's own troubled past, slowly revealed via an extensive series of flashbacks.
Many of the usual indie drama tropes are in attendance: you've got your dead relatives, your beautiful exes, your substance abuse, your conveniently all-white working class milieu. Yet Lonergan elevates his film above the cliches with straightforward, unsentimental storytelling. Manchester by the Sea shines in its awkward details: a stretcher being interminably loaded onto an ambulance; a cellphone buzzing during a funeral; a corpse having to be kept on ice all winter until the cemetery thaws out. Lonergan even gives the most fleeting supporting players their own moments, from the woman at the docks who warns her husband not to give Lee a job to the stressed-out drummer in Patrick's high school rock band who can't keep the beat. We are given a world filled with life and nuance.
Affleck, still the best actor in the family, delivers a suitably unshowy performance. Yeah, you've seen it before: the brooding loner who can't articulate his feelings, who drowns his sorrows in beer, who gets into drunken brawls. Yet Affleck makes him sympathetic and real, and Lonergan, to his great credit, never suggests for a second that what Lee needs is the love of a good woman or the help of a good therapist. There is no magic movie pill to cure Lee's pain, although the film does give him a sense of purpose.
Manchester by the Sea is a sad, subtle, bittersweet, ultimately hopeful film. Only those seeking Oscar-ready moments of catharsis or schmaltz will be disappointed.