Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 17 min.
Our content ratings: Violence 2; Language 4; Sex/Nudity 4.
Our star rating (1-5): 4
A glad heart makes a cheerful countenance,
but by sorrow of heart the spirit is broken.
Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?
Lee’s (Casey Affleck) spirit might not be “broken,” but, as we get to know him through flashbacks, he is certainly contending with “sorrow of heart.” That is why he has left the village that gives the film its name and puts up with a thankless (almost) job as a janitor in a Boston apartment complex. He is constantly replacing a light bulb for an elderly tenant or repairing a leaky pipe or toilet. Only occasionally does he receive a thank you (from a woman, we see). During his off-hours, he drinks alone in a bar, where he sometimes gets into a fight because he does not like the way a man is looking at him. For Lee is no “glad heart” or “cheerful countenance.”
At the beginning of the film, some eight years earlier, he is standing on the stern of his brother Joe’s (Kyle Chandler) fishing trawler coaching his young nephew Patrick in fishing. They were very close then, but now that Patrick (Lucas Hedges) is a 16-year-old, the old closeness is gone. Lee has returned to the village upon receipt of the news that Joe has suddenly dropped dead from heart failure. Joe has been divorced from his alcoholic wife Elise (Gretchen Mol), so the hospital has called Lee as closest relative. Joe’s death was not unexpected, because in a flashback to a hospital bed scene a doctor has diagnosed him with congestive heart disease, news so hard to take that the distraught Elise stalked out of the room.
When Lee attends the reading of the will, he is shocked to learn that he is named Patrick’s guardian, and so is the lawyer by Joe’s not having talked over the matter with his brother. Lee has a host of reasons as to why he is not the proper guardian for his nephew. However, if he is to be in charge, he tells the boy they will have to live in Boston.
Patrick does not want to leave his school friends, hockey team, or garage band—also, the lecherous boy has been grooming two different girls (unknown to each other) as partners to shed their virginity. Over the course of numerous conversations Lee suggests the possibility of the boy staying with another uncle in Minnesota; of Patrick living with his now sober mother whose married to man in a neighboring village; or of staying with the close family friend George (C.J. Wilson), who has been employing the boy part time on the wharf and partners with him in maintaining Joe’s boat.
The film demands close attention because of its numerous, unannounced flashbacks that slowly add to our understanding of the characters. Just as in real life something will suddenly bring back an incident or person we had not thought of in years, so is Lee, while coping with watching over his rebellious nephew, constantly thrust back into his troubled past. He sees that it is not he who controls memory, but that it controls him. And for Lee, these are memories he would like to put behind him. We learn why villagers cast dark looks or whisper about him on the street and why he cannot find a job in the village. There was a tragedy that led to his divorce from his wife Randi (Michelle Williams) and what amounted to a flight from the town. Guilt and remorse follow him like a dark cloud hovering over his head, shutting out the sunlight.
Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s somber, beautifully crafted film is good tonic for those chirpy Hallmark-type films that teach that a new romance or adventure will sweep away grief and guilt. You will find that a word-search for “sorrow” or “grief” turns up so many passages in the Hebrew/Christian Scriptures, the hurt being so great for one prophet that he cries out, “Is there no balm in Gilead?” The Scriptural answer is always tied to a right relationship with God (or making it right if the connection is broken, as was the case with the prophet’s nation). However, we see little evidence of faith in Lee, or in his nephew. And when Patrick has lunch with his reformed alcoholic mother and her new husband, their “born again” faith holds little attraction.
And yet the film does conclude with as positive note as could be expected, even a tentative note of hope. Lee proves to be a wise and caring guardian for Patrick after all. But just before that, we see how wounded Lee still is when he encounters ex-wife Randi and a friend on the street. Pushing a pram with her new baby in it, she is eager to talk with him, so her friend leaves to go fetch their car. Her voice a bit choked up, Randi apologizes for the way she had treated him during their crisis. He relies haltingly, and when she suggests that they meet for lunch to heal their breach, he turns her down. This is the most poignant scene of the film, the two actors deserving the Oscar nods predicted by critics.
I want to give this film 5 stars, but one aspect of it seems either unrealistic and/or deplorable, namely the parenting of the mothers of the two girls that Patrick is desperately trying to make his first sexual conquests. The parents are so permissive, pretending to believe that their daughters are “doing homework” while alone with Patrick, and behind closed doors, no less. They might just as well have given him an invitation, “Welcome to my daughter.” Granted, the boy is smooth and manipulative, using the grief from his father’s death to his advantage, but these women are supposedly adults. Lee also is implicated in his nephew’s plans, though we can understand he is feeling his way in his unfamiliar role of serving as the boy’s guardian, and so does not want to seem too strict. Parents of teenagers, as well as youth leaders, should be wary—there are no good role models for youthful viewers of this film, with the possible exception of George. Having said this, Manchester By the Sea is still a powerful study of grief and the struggle to find a way out of its morass, well worthy of the praise it has garnered.
This review with a set of questions will be in the Jan. 2017 issue of VP.