Here’s what I assumed after I watched this trailer: The film is about a son traumatized by his father’s death and the long, awkward process it takes for him and his uncle to come to accept each other as substitute father and adopted son.
The general theme is correct in some ways, but much more is going on here. You really have to see the movie to absorb it.
In the opening scenes, Lee Chandler, a Boston janitor, learns that his older brother, Joe, has died. Lee drives through the snow to the blue-collar fishing town where he grew up, and he learns that his brother wants Lee to finish the job of raising Joe’s 16-year-old son, Patrick. When Lee and Patrick learn that Joe’s body cannot be buried until the ground thaws in the spring, both are upset at the news.
The film ends in the spring burial. In a typical movie, the spring thaw would symbolize the resolution of the two men’s relationship. It does so here, but not as you might expect.
Lee is a decent but tightly wound man, a steady beer drinker who’s not much of a talker and who has a quick temper. Patrick wants to continue with his current life, to finish school in Manchester and then to take command of his father’s fishing boat.
Between the brackets of chill and thaw, Lee and Patrick get to know each other and the film quietly unspools Lee’s harrowing backstory, piece by piece. By the time the credits roll, we understand Lee and Patrick for who they are, and we understand the likely shapes of the rest of their lives.
With a less thoughtful screenplay or in the hands of a formulaic director, “Manchester by the Sea” would either resolve its characters’ conflicts in a neatly tied bow or descend into maudlin pathos. Kenneth Lonergan, who wrote and directed the movie, avoids emotional manipulation and instead delivers a story that feels like Truth. It’s an excellent piece of work.
The actors — Casey Affleck as Lee, Lucas Hedge as Patrick and Michelle Williams as Randi, Lee’s ex-wife — deliver wonderful performances that make me want to see more of them.
(Interestingly, Matt Damon produced the movie and was set to play the Lee character until time conflicts made that impossible. This may have been fortunate; I can imagine filmgoers watching “Manchester” and seeing “Matt Damon in the role of Lee” rather than the real Lee as played by a less familiar actor.)