Manchester by the Sea

Manchester by the Sea

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The sensations and experience of grief are a shocking departure from other states of existing. And we, as a society, often shy away from exploring or understanding the grieving process. Sensations can feel heightened, while orientation is often confused. For those who have never been through it, and even for those who have, a traumatic loss and the grief that subsequently descends can feel like a mysterious, clouded and disorienting journey inflicted without adequate preparation.

Manchester by the Sea, meticulously directed by Kenneth Lonergan, received 6 Academy Award nominations and Casey Affleck is considered a favored contender for best actor for his role as Lee Chandler, an isolated Bostonian janitor paralyzed by grief. Lee returns to his hometown, Manchester, to pick up the pieces after his brother Joe’s death from congestive heart failure. Lee’s first task after identifying the body is to head to his nephew Patrick’s hockey practice to break the news to sixteen year-old Patrick of his father’s passing. In a flashback to happier times several years ago, viewers watch Lee goof around with his young nephew on his Joe’s fishing boat. Lee joyfully mocks his big brother’s stiff demeanor and muses about why it might be preferable to Patrick to be raised by Lee instead of by his father. A young and self-possessed Patrick, while clearly bonded with his Uncle Lee, makes it clear that under any circumstances, cool factor not withstanding, he prefers life with his father Joe (Kyle Chandler).

Roughly a decade later, Patrick no longer has a choice in what was once a hypothetical laughing matter. Joe has named Lee as Patrick’s custodian and Patrick’s mother has abandoned the family long ago. The layers of loss compound and compile. The acting, writing, plot and landscape of this exquisite film earn its critical acclaim. Lonegran understands that grief forever transforms the griever.

From a psychological perspective, the mastery of the Manchester by the Sea is Lonegran’s ability to capture the most subtle, awkward, disorienting moments that punctuate and animate the grieving space. A cellphone rings mid-funeral. A gurney carrying the patient awkwardly flails and refuses lift into the ambulance despite the EMTs’ sincere efforts. Well meaning friends struggle to hear each other across a crowded room of funeral guests. Frozen chicken breasts refuse to stay in place and fall furiously from the freezer, suddenly sparking a series of sobs and a necessary cathartic release. These genuine moments animate the intimacy and sincerity between characters and punctuate a realistic and humbling tale of traumatic loss, grief, and love.

Grief forever transforms the griever. “I can’t beat it.” Lee explains to Patrick. Manchester by the Sea refuses gratuitous Hollywood endings in favor of realistic characters struggling to communicate. When they miss each other, scenes are simultaneously believable and difficult to watch. When they connect with authenticity, the poetry of the human condition comes alive and seems to jump off of the screen and into the heart.

Elisabeth LaMotte

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