A heavy pall hangs over Kenneth Lonergan’s serious-minded movie, Manchester By The Sea, which opens in Canadian theaters on November 25. A contemporary family drama set mainly in a New England fishing town, it’s invariably earnest.
It’s carried on the capable shoulders of Casey Affleck, who plays Lee Chandler, a janitor who’s summoned back to his hometown following the sudden death of his older brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler). Once back home, Lee comes face to face with his complicated past yet again.
This emotionally complex movie opens as Lee attends to his duties at a drab apartment building in a Boston suburb. He shovels snow, takes out the garbage and looks after plumbing problems. He’s a conscientious worker, but he has a volatile temperament and a bent for fisticuffs, both of which embroil him in needless troubles.
On his last house call, he’s sucked into an argument with a demanding tenant, who complains about his off-putting mannerisms to his boss. His employer issues a warning that Lee takes to heart, at least for the next little while.
When he learns of Joe’s untimely death, he drives immediately to view his body at the hospital morgue. Having made the funeral arrangements, he visits his ex-wife (Michelle Williams), two daughters and infant son. The connection between them is wafer thin, but Lonergan refrains from elaborating.
Lee also reconnects with his 16-year-old nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges, in a first-rate performance). Under the terms of his late brother’s will, he’s supposed to be Patrick’s guardian, but neither of them are keen about living together. Different arrangements will have to be made, taking the film in new directions.
Manchester By the Sea, which hinges on a series of flashbacks involving Lee and Joe, takes an unexpected turn when a fire guts his wife’s home. Feeling devastated and directly responsible for the tragedy, he tries to harm himself in a police station, where he has just been questioned by two sympathetic cops.
The budding relationship between Lee, a sullen and monosyllabic loner, and Patrick, an extrovert, lies at the heart of the movie. Lee and Patrick spend quite a lot of time together, but their personalities rarely mesh, causing tensions.
Having learned his father cannot be buried until the spring thaw, Patrick turns morose. Lee accepts the situation in stride and urges Patrick to be patient.
Patrick’s depression quickly gives way to youthful exuberance as he turns his attention to carnal matters. He and his girlfriend try having sex in her room, but they’re interrupted by a loud knock on the door, ruining their fleeting moment of passion.
It’s an amusing scene, one of the few moments of levity in a film laden with doom and gloom.