MESSAGE IN THE MOVIES
Directed by Kenneth Lonergan. Starring Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams
Jesus once said, “If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matthew 6:14-15 NRSV) But how can you forgive others when you are having a hard time forgiving yourself?
Manchester by the Sea is a long, sprawling film about grief, forgiveness, family, and the possibilities of rebuilding a life after something has been taken away. Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan is a playwright who is comfortable taking his time to let us discover his characters and the emotional challenges that they face. His last film (2011’s Margaret) was rarely shown in its original length of over three hours. But with such rich characters and interesting stories to tell, Manchester by the Sea is captivating and enjoyable for its 2 hours and 17-minute running time.
The film begins by showing us the day-by-day routine of Lee Chandler (Affleck) who is a custodian/handyman in a Boston apartment complex. As we watch him go about his daily business it is clear that he is not interested in developing anything close to a friendship. He is guarded and even combative to those who try to get close to him, but he is professional and competent with his work and content to live in a small one-room basement apartment.
Lee receives word that his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has died and that he needs to return to his hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts. Lee was close to his big brother and a loving uncle to his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). There is much family dysfunction to work around, including two failed marriages (Lee’s and Joe’s) and two ex-wives (Gretchen Mol and Michelle Williams). Meeting with his brother’s attorney, Lee discovers that he has been given a responsibility that he feels totally inadequate to carry out.
Few films deal with family as honestly as Manchester by the Sea. There is truth in the old saying that most families would never get together in one place if it weren’t for weddings and funerals. When years pass between reunions, things become tougher. And – if there are unresolved issues from the past – they will continue to inform the present. The movie also does a good job showing us how hometown reputations are often so firmly determined that a person has to leave their hometown in order to grow.
Casey Affleck’s performance as Lee shows us a person who is trying hard to keep himself separate from others but unable to contain his emotions. As Lee negotiates the many relationships that have been altered by his brother’s death, we journey with him in his past joys (told through flashbacks) and current trials. The entire cast is excellent, and the story is told with compassion and many moments of humor. The funny scenes are funny and the sad scenes are moving, a rare feat to accomplish in a single movie.
There’s generous swearing and some scenes of horny teenagers, but these are just grace notes for a film that is primarily about moments of grace, with an ending that I think is practically perfect. Manchester by the Sea is a quiet film that accomplishes much.
Four halos: A moving film about grief and loss, filled with memorable characters and honest emotion.
Two pitchforks: Occasional pervasive swearing; some adolescent sexual fumbling.
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Rev. Bruce Batchelor-Glader
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