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Manchester by the Sea ••••1/2

manchester_by_the_seaStarring: Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler
Director: Kenneth Lonergan
Screenplay: Kenneth Lonergan
Drama, Rated: R
Running Time: 137 minutes
Release Date: December 16, 2016


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(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Greg, can’t you see that it’s time to review Manchester by the Sea?

It’s the end of the Oscar year and about time for a serious movie. Let’s recap.

We meet Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), a handyman who lives in Boston and whose job is to fix the plumbing and electrical problems of the tenants in several apartment buildings. Lee appears to be a loner and gets into occasional bar fights. Yet for the most part, he is kind and gentle. One day he gets a telephone call telling him that his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has died.

Lee travels from Boston to his hometown of Manchester to meet with friends and family of Joe’s. It seems Joe has left behind a small boat, a house, and a son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). While Lee attends to Joe’s funeral needs, he stops by the lawyer’s to check on Joe’s will. Since Joe had a degenerative heart condition, he made sure all his affairs were in order. Lee is surprised beyond words when he learns that Joe has made him Patrick’s guardian. Joe has left enough money for Lee to move from Boston and take residence in his home. But Lee doesn’t want this new responsibility and is strangely opposed to moving back to Manchester.

Greg, Manchester by the Sea is one of those rare movies that takes its time telling its story and developing its characters. There are scenes that don’t seem necessary yet speak volumes about the kind of people we are getting to know, as when Lee Chandler misunderstands his nephew Patrick and almost inadvertently hurts him with his car. Scenes are also extended to include seemingly superfluous dialogue, yet in this movie even small talk looms large in revealing character details.

Casey Affleck is highly deserving of all the kudos he is receiving for his performance here. In truth, almost all the performances here are dynamic and convincing. We see the pain in these characters’ eyes and we care deeply about how their messy predicaments can get resolved. This movie pulls no punches about what Richard Rohr calls “the tragic sense of life”. There are no villains here; life’s difficult circumstances crop up and grab our hero by the throat, forcing him to make decisions and take risks. This is compelling drama, portrayed with heartfelt realism.

I couldn’t agree more. This is a story with no winners. Death leaves Lee holding the bag and it doesn’t make his life easy. He is hesitant to move back to Manchester and we’re left wondering why. Then, through a series of flashbacks, we’re shown that he once had a family in Manchester. While things weren’t perfect, they were pretty good. And then one night he accidentally burned down his house, killing his three young children. Afterwards, he, his wife, and the town, could not forgive him. He is forced to leave Manchester and take up residence in Boston doing odd jobs.

When he is given the chance to return to Manchester, he at first rejects this “call to adventure.” He doesn’t want to try and make it all work. But as he becomes more attached to his nephew and the town he left, we see him attempt to find work. But he is turned away. The town still hasn’t forgiven or forgotten what he did. Ultimately, he finds a middle ground. Patrick will be adopted by friends, and he will regain his full birthright at the age of 21. Lee will relocate to a closer job in Boston so he can be a part of Patrick’s life. It’s not a Hollywood happy ending. It’s not what anyone really wants. But in the circumstances that Lee, Patrick and Manchester find themselves, it is the best that can be done.

Lee desperately needs a mentor to help him with his life decisions, especially regarding what to do with caring for Patrick. This movie shows us how agonizing life’s difficult circumstances can be when person lacks help from a trusted mentor figure. Lee’s older brother Joe, now deceased, probably served as a quasi-mentor figure for Lee, but now Joe’s gone. Lee’s parents are pretty useless in helping Lee, his vitriolic mother especially.

Lee is left in the role of mentor for his nephew and finds himself ill-equipped to perform in this role, mostly because Lee himself hasn’t properly come to terms with his past. He’s an emotionally shattered man who has shut down. In the end, Lee finds a compromise regarding his nephew, an arrangement that is far from perfect but is the best Lee can do, especially considering the fact that he lacks any kind of mentoring.

I think you’re right again, Scott. This movie proves that you don’t need a mentor for the hero. But there are consequences for the mentorless soul. The hero goes looking for answers but finds none. The hero looks for solutions but finds none. This is a story of a man thrown into a position of responsibility, but a responsibility that he cannot handle. He does his best, but his best is not good enough.

Manchester by the Sea is a heart-rending story of a man looking for redemption, but finds none. It is an honest story about a man fractured by his own guilt. The story unfolds, not slowly, but deliberately. Each scene takes its time showing us the events of a man trying to cope with the responsibility that he didn’t ask for. We want Lee to succeed. We even need him to succeed. But he won’t succeed. It’s not the story we want to see. But in life, it’s often the story we’re dealt. I give Manchester by the Sea 5 out of 5 Reels for telling a story that is as honest as a movie can be.

Lee Chandler appears to be a decent fellow in the beginning of the film. He serves his tenants and keeps to himself. His one vice is that he seems to pick fights in bars – even preferring them to advances by attractive women. Although he doesn’t want the responsibility of taking care of his orphaned nephew, we witness him doing his best. This is the hero within him. He tries. He tries very hard. And in the end he cannot overcome the tragedy that he brought upon himself. He is guilt-ridden and broken. He is the tragic hero who gets 4 out of 5 Heroes from me.

As you point out, Scott, there are no mentors in this film. And that is part of what Manchester by the Sea is about. Lee is mentorless at a time when he could most use a mentor. He has no champion. And in the end, he loses to circumstance. If he had a mentor, things might have gone differently. It seems unfair to award this film zero mentor points since it succeeded in telling this tale without one. But as there is no mentor, 0 Mentor points is all I can offer.

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Manchester by the Sea is a heart-achingly realistic portrayal of a damaged man doing his best to cope with a family emergency. This movie pulls no emotional punches; it tells a tough story and does it with searing truth. Casey Affleck does a phenomenal job portraying Lee Chandler and deserves strong Oscar consideration. I can’t think of an actor who is more gifted at showing pain through his eyes and nonverbal behavior. I award this film 4 Reels out of 5.

The heroic path of Lee Chandler is fascinating and unconventional from the standpoint of the classic hero’s journey. He is independent to a fault, resisting efforts to bond with people who could grow close to him and help him with much-needed healing. There are no villains, only inner-demons to conquer. Lee’s story is hard to watch at times yet ultimately redemptive. I award his character 4 Hero points out of 5.

While there is no mentor for poor, suffering Lee Chandler, he does nevertheless serve as a mentor figure for his nephew Patrick. How effective Lee is in this role is open to debate. Patrick needs a mentor almost as badly as Lee does, and we get the sense that the loss of Joe has created a big mentorship void in the entire family. Ironically, the conspicuous absence of mentorship in this film gives it prominence. Thus I give the mentorship in the film a total of 2 Mentor points out of 5.

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