The world breaks everyone,” Ernest Hemingway wrote in A Farewell to Arms, “and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.”
The world has already broken Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck, never more pained or human), but it is in no special hurry to kill him. Instead, Lee accepts his burden and willingly suffers his sins silently, so damaged that he can barely utter a word for fear of a torrent of tears.
Lee works as a janitor for a Boston apartment complex, and his days are spent toiling for the tenants—some grateful, others not. His evenings are confined to his solitary basement hovel decorated by the bare necessities. This lifestyle is a choice, one that becomes clear later on. But life interjects when his brother dies, and Lee must return to his hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts.
Joe Chandler (played by Kyle Chandler in flashbacks) was the rock of the family. He was a kind man who was always there with a helping hand and an understanding sigh—something the townsfolk bring up to Lee every time their paths cross. These condolences sting Lee like daggers. He knows that if they had a choice, Lee would be the recently departed, not Joe. But the world doesn’t work like that. The heart disease that took Joe midway through his life did not do so for an easily explainable reason.
To complicate matters, Joe’s son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), is a minor and must be looked after. Patrick’s mother (Gretchen Mol) is an alcoholic—now in recovery—and left the picture long ago. Joe’s will appoint Lee as Patrick’s guardian, a raw deal for both parties. Sixteen-year-old Patrick doesn’t want to leave Manchester: he’s on the hockey team, plays in a rock band, and has two girlfriends. But the last thing Lee wants to do is stay. This seaside village is next door to an ocean of sadness, one that he will never be able to outrun, no matter how hard he tries.
Manchester by the Sea is about the futility of that run. Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan (the filmmaker behind You Can Count on Me and Margaret), Manchester maintains a masterful balance of tragedy and humor. Lonergan knows that no matter how bad life gets, there are still moments of quips and snaps, particularly the ones between family members. Life crushes everyone equally, and we need a little levity to make it through.
Levity helps, but to get through this, Lee is going to need help. Life is too much to bear alone, and sometimes sharing that pain is what counts. As Lee’s ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams in a short but powerful performance) says: “My heart is broken, and I know it’s always going to be broken, but I know yours is too.”
Thankfully, we’re all in this together. Streaming on Amazon Prime.