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Manchester by the Sea
Thursday, January 5, 2017


Manchester-by-the-Sea certainly looks like a beautiful New England town to live in, considering the opening shots of the film of the same name. But, beneath the seaside beauty, there dwells the many dark and light experiences of the realities of small town life.

In that sense, the film reminds me of another special film, “Ordinary People” about the dramas that boil below the niceties of small town living.

After the opening shots, we follow the very ordinary life of the lead character, Lee Chandler, who is played with Oscar winning intensity by Casey Affleck. He is a janitor who seems good at his work as a handyman but bad at relating to others. He has a fight with a renter in his building and later with a man at a bar. He seems lonely and cut off from others. Barely surviving. And we wonder what has made him this way.

Then the phone rings and life gets more complicated. His brother Joe has died of heart failure and in the process has made Lee the guardian of his teenage son. His immediate response is, “I can’t be his guardian.” He will struggle with this decision for the rest of the film.

Lee’s teenage nephew Patrick, who clearly loves and needs his uncle, is played by Lucas Hedges in a sometimes deeply moving and other times humorous performance as a broken hearted teenager who hides his pain behind wisecracks. This relationship offers some hope of bringing Lee’s heart back to life again. He reenters family life through such daily tasks like picking Patrick up from school and dropping the teen off at his girlfriend’s house to play in his clearly untalented band.

Sporadically, there are flashbacks of a happier time in the past when Lee and his brother have taken the young Patrick (“Patty”) fishing, teasing him about how scary it is to catch a shark just as something big is pulling hard on the end of his fishing line. What dangers lurk beneath the surface ready to jump out and grab us?

Music is a powerful force in the film. There is, for instance, an excerpt from Handel’s “Messiah.” And Director Kenneth Lonergan chooses his favorite classical piece Tomaso Albinoni’s “Adagio for Strings and organ in G Minor” to underline the scene, which reveals the dark secret at the heart of the film. The gut wrenching music deeply expresses the pain and horror of the scene. 

There is no doubt that this film will do well at Oscar time. I was on the verge of tears several times near the end of the film, especially when Lee’s ex wife, poignantly played by Michele Williams, confronts him about their past. He infers that there are some scars that just can never be healed. But there are other moments that express not just the pain but the solace and good times that the deep love of family can bring—a reminder of how we all can get through it together.

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