There are two things you need to know before seeing “Manchester by the Sea.” First, it’s a harrowing tale of grief and loss. And, in case you hadn’t realized it already, Casey Affleck is the superior Affleck brother.
The film tells the story of Lee Chandler, a man living in Boston who works as a janitor and, except for a bar fight or two, pretty much lives a quiet existence. That is until his brother dies and he’s forced to relocate to Manchester to care for his orphaned nephew.
If it sounds like a story about tough guys who swear a lot and tiptoe around their feelings only to have a final scene of grunts and understanding looks over an Irish beer, then you may be right. Of course, it’s never that simple, much like life in general. When we first meet Lee he’s a janitor at an apartment complex in Boston. Although he doesn’t appear to enjoy unclogging toilets all day, he seems to do his work because he knows he needs a job. When he gets the call that his brother has died, Lee becomes a man stricken by grief, and a hidden fear.
Death can elicit many different emotions, which can be seen in Affleck’s and the too-adorable-for-this-world Lucas Hedges’ performances. At first it feels like Lee is afraid of the future. He’s not sure how to take care of his nephew, Patrick. He doesn’t know where he’ll get money. He doesn’t know how to console the grieving Patrick who has just lost his father.
All of this seems to come to the surface when Lee discovers that his brother’s will states he is to be Patrick’s legal guardian. A sort of panic sets in on the scene as Lee sits with his brother’s lawyer. He repeatedly says he can’t do it. He can’t be anyone’s guardian. And then the audience learns why. And the why really has nothing to do with Lee’s fear of the future, but rather his fear of the past.
Past mistakes can haunt us forever. They linger in the back of our minds, sometimes affecting the simplest things we do in a day. There’s no time limit on loss, either. There’s no magic number of days, months, even years that pass before life goes back to normal. Sometimes it never does. For Lee, his past haunts him everyday and going home to Manchester is a reminder of his tragedy.
But Lee loves his nephew and wants to make sure he’s taken care of. He wants Patrick to move to Boston with him, but Patrick is a teenager who needs his friends and school and band. He tells his uncle that he refuses to live in Boston and asks why Lee can’t stay in Manchester with him. Lee never says it explicitly, but it has nothing to do with not wanting Patrick. It’s about the memories his hometown holds. They’re too painful for him. There’s too much grief in his heart. He tells Patrick that he just can’t beat it.
Lee might not realize it, but admitting his defeat makes him strong. Because he knows he can’t live in his hometown and be the best guardian for his nephew. He’s willing to admit that he can’t function in an environment that threatens his sanity and his heart.
I know what it’s like to be afraid of your hometown and the memories that live there. They’re almost inescapable. Things seem to sit and fester in hometowns. No matter how long you’re gone for, they will always be there when you come back, as if no time has passed. Things in hometowns, including the people, never seem to change. I’m afraid of people from my past. Certain persons in my hometown and the memories we shared together haunt me. I have the lingering fear in the back of my mind always when I go back to visit. Will I run into them at the grocery store? At the movie theater? At the local watering hole?
Last week while I was home for the holidays I experienced one of those moments. I was supposed to meet my friend and her parents for a drink at a bar in my hometown. I walked into the bar and saw the one person I now always try to avoid in that town. Someone who brings awful memories to my mind. Every time I look at him my heart hurts. So I said hello to my friend and her family and I turned right back around and left. You always think those moves will look bad. That you’re running away from something. But I don’t want to ever go backwards. It wasn’t until I saw “Manchester by the Sea” that I realized that sometimes it’s OK to remove yourself from situations you don’t want to be in.
No one should ever be pigeonholed by their past. Even if it means you have to give up certain things. “Manchester by the Sea” is about pain and loss, but also accepting the things you can’t change and figuring out who you are beyond that.