Eventually, there will be so many films about a sullen or damaged man returning to his provincial town to face the demons of his past that Netflix will make a separate category for them. At their worst, these movies are navel-gazing vanity projects for their writers and directors (Cameron Crowe, so help me…). At their best, they’re like Chris Kelly’s off-kilter, emotional and funny Other People (2016). What’s often grating, though, is these films' insistence that their protagonists are self-aware enough to understand their mental maladies, and that all each of these sad dudes needs is one positive person to inspiration-porn him back to health — so that’s how we think grieving works?
A master at creating the exceptional sad-sack prodigal son, writer/director Kenneth Lonergan asked this question in 2000’s sibling drama You Can Count on Me: What if the depressed guy doesn’t actually know he’s depressed? In that film, he inventively circumnavigates the genre to find an original entry point by building reality-based characters, and by showing the story equally through the eyes of the woman who had to deal with the returned man. Now, in Manchester by the Sea, he again paints the portrait of an emotionally stunted guy who hasn’t processed a painful death. Only now Lonergan’s asking: What if no one in this story even knows what depression is? The result is a poignant, surprisingly hilarious depiction of death, grieving and small-town life.
Snow piles on the dirty-brick colonial buildings of a Boston neighborhood, and Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), a maintenance guy, shovels the walkway again and again. He’s mechanical, emotionless, as he enters into little everyday-living tableaus of the people in an apartment complex. In one micro-scene, he’s unclogging a disgusting toilet, the tenant shyly apologizing before getting on the phone in the other room to proclaim, “I think I’m in love with my janitor” — with Lee in earshot.
Lee says so little, moves so slowly and without emotion, that he’s a blank slate, a vessel for other people’s projections. Soon, Lee has to return to the small fishing village where he was raised, where he’s told that his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has died. Rather than an emotional outpouring, he delivers a succinct “Aw, fuck you” and then a “Sorry, can I see him?” He talks in a kind of stilted New England cadence that is the verbal equivalent of a shrug — “Whatcha gonna do,” he says. And then Lee’s delivered some astonishing news: He’s now the legal guardian of his 17-year-old nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges).
That prompts a string of flashback sequences, where Lee seems an altogether different man; he’s jovial, physically affectionate, has a wife (Michelle Williams) and three kids. The impact is immediate — we now understand that something has happened to make him so cold, and it certainly cannot be good. Yet Lonergan doesn’t force the revelation these scenes build to into any kind of gotcha moment. Instead, it becomes one thread in the tapestry of grief that neither resolves itself nor descends into madness, and the eerie, stoic calm of these characters as they carry on becomes so uncomfortable that it transforms into humor. Dear god, I kept thinking, I hope Lee just cries and gets into it. But Lonergan’s depiction is more realistic than that.
Meanwhile, nephew Patrick deals with his grief by trying to have sex with his two girlfriends and by hanging out with friends — the teens at least try to gather round in a circle to talk about the death, but the conversation still turns to inane chatter about TV and music. After the funeral, Lee says Patrick can’t have his friends over, and without distraction, he suffers a nervous breakdown when some frozen chicken falls out of the freezer door. As he hyperventilates, barely making sentences, Lee keeps asking, “Is this about the chicken? You don’t want the chicken?” The two fumble around their grief like a pair of three-pronged plugs trying to jam themselves into two-prong outlets. And it’s funny. Patrick deals out sick burns to Lee, and as the two interact, Lee regains just enough energy back to be a ballbuster uncle, though Lonergan never lets him go so far that the audience may feel he’s finding redemption. No. He’s a janitor in Boston, and he’s endured unimaginable loss, and this is as good as it gets.
Throughout, the music of a church pipe organ suffuses this film with a robust dreariness. Catholics sure do love to suffer. And Lonergan’s outlook on this pain is moving and completely without pretense, so much like You Can Count on Me, but with even more emotional resonance, if you can imagine that. What Lonergan proves with Manchester by the Sea is that no basic premise must be original to make an excellent film. All you need is honesty and an understanding that real life ain’t like the movies. Well, not most of them.