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? 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 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. Lee says so little, moves so slowly and without emotion, that he's a blank slate. 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?"And then Lee's delivered some astonishing news: He's now 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. We now understand that something has happened to make him so cold. Yet Lonergan doesn't force the revelation these scenes build to into any kind of gotcha moment. Instead, Lonergan proves 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.