In a way, Manchester by the Sea is a lot like the most depressing version of Stephen King’s IT imaginable. While the very concept of hometown is often romanticized or ridiculed, Manchester by the Sea and IT both focus on the scars that can be left on an area by the horrors that occurs there. Both treat hometown like more of a haunted house than a safe haven. IT collects realistic childhood trauma from bullies to abusive fathers to lost siblings and allows them to manifest as a literal monster. Kenneth Lonergan’s film is less fanciful, but nonetheless, ghosts wait around every corner in Manchester, reminders of those whose loss never fully heals.
Manchester by the Sea’s plot is sprung into motion by one death, but its another tragedy that looms over the film. This is, bluntly, a movie about death and grief, about the wounds it opens in those left behind, and about the responsibility that comes with continuing on. Manchester by the Sea is an almost unbearably depressing. In one sequence midway through the film, a dramatic score is added not to heighten the emotion, but seemingly to dull it; to let it play out in silence would be too devastating. It makes heavy use of flashbacks not to reveal twists, but to provide detail and emotional clarity. Occasionally, that means revisiting fishing trips with those who passed. Oftentimes, that means revisiting moments of shame and guilt that have no way of being properly atoned for anymore.
But Manchester by the Sea undercuts its melancholy with playful moments. Most of these come from Patrick, whose father’s death sets the story in motion. Played by Lucas Hedges, Patrick walks a fine line between whiny and wisecracky, and comes out as one of the more down-to-earth depictions of being sixteen put on film. The movie also manages to claim the title of Funniest Funeral Smorgasbord Gag Ever, lest anyone try to steal it. But its all held together with Casey Affleck’s stoic performance as Lee, Patrick’s uncle and reluctant guardian. From the trailers, it is made to seem like Lee is reluctant to move to Manchester and care for Patrick due to responsibility issues; the reality of the film is nothing of the sort. Pain and guilt can be extraordinary motivating forces, and Manchester by the Sea explores them beautifully.
Manchester by the Sea (2016)
Directed by Kenneth Lonergan
Starring Casey Afflect, Lucas Hedges, Kyle Chandler, and Michelle Williams
Rotten Tomatoes (96%)