“Manchester by the Sea”

December 17, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester By the Sea” is very good movie, not just for what it does but for what it doesn’t do. That is, it avoids several cliches of American movies; and for that, it is more honest and more powerful.

Lee Chandler (Casey Afflek), is a troubled man, forced to become guardian of his 15-year old nephew Patrick when Lee’s brother Joe (Patrick’s father) dies. Lee was not always troubled. The opening scene, seven years earlier, shows  Lee, Patrick, and Joe fishing on Joe’s boat near Manchester, north of Boston. It’s all good family fun. It’s also the opening of the trailer, which sketches the plot of the rest of the movie as well.

In the intervening years, tragedy has befallen Lee, and he lives with its pain. He works as a handyman in an apartment complex in Quincy south of Boston. He lives alone in a single room there. He is withdrawn – asocial with flashes of anger.

We know how this will go. The Lee-Patrick relationship will be rocky at first, with arguments and misunderstandings, but by the end of the film, Lee will not only become a good and willing surrogate father, but with Patrick providing subtle advice and help, he will become a better person. He’ll be more sociable and less angry, he’ll find a good woman, he’ll get a better job.

Not quite. That’s the scenario we’d expect from Hollywood, where children are in most ways better than adults. Adults become better people by dealing with kids (“Kramer vs. Kramer”).  Or kids help the adults overcome their silly problems (“The Parent Trap,” “Sleepless in Seattle”).  Even teenagers are more capable than adults at dealing with life’s problems. (See earlier posts on “The Descendants”  and “The Kids Are All Right.”). In fact, “Manchester” has what seems like a deliberate comment on films where children manoeuver adults into what turns out to be a successful relationship. As the two sit in the car outside his girlfriend’s house, Patrick asks Lee to come in and talk with the girl’s mother. (“Can you at least hang out with her so I can be alone with Sandy for half an hour without her mother knockin’ on the door and askin’, ‘How’s it goin’?’every twenty seconds?” “This could be good for both of us,” Patrick says. In contrast to the Hollywood cliche, Patrick is wrong. It’s good for neither of them. Lee goes inside, but he is incapable of conversation with the girl’s mother.

In the end, the relation with Patrick brings not some grand transformation but maybe a glimmer of hope. Lee will still not become Patrick’s guardian. But he does move to Boston, a half-hour closer to Manchester, and takes he two-room apartment so that Patrick can visit. But Lee is still a janitor, he is still alone, and he still gets drunk in bars and starts throwing punches.

The other anti-Hollywood virtue of the film is its honest treatment of working-class people. “Manchester” refuses to portray them as noble in the face of adversity à la Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine.” And as A.O. Scott says (here), comparing it with other Boston working-class films, “This is not a pseudo-epic of redemption or revenge, with boxers and gangsters and their churchgoing moms and wives.” Nor is upward mobility an issue. You could imagine Lee insisting that Patrick go to college – trite dialogue like “You don’t wanna end up like me.”  But when Patrick says in passing, “I’m not going to college,” nothing more is said. 

The world of “Manchester” is White working class and largely male. But these are not the people at Trump rallies, resentful, on the attack, vowing to  take back their country. Lee is just a man trying to come to terms with the challenges and sorrows of his life, some brought on by his own actions, some handed to him.

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