I had some idea of what to expect from Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester By the Sea, which I finally saw yesterday. I knew to expect excellent performances, and tasteful shots of gray New England seascapes that would make me nostalgic for the years I lived in Boston, and maybe a local actor or two that I had met or worked with (Hey there, C.J. Wilson and Lewis Wheeler!). And I knew to expect that evergreen indie trope of Sensitive White Men in Self-Exile Until Moved By the Forces of Love and/or Family to Reconnect with the World. What I didn’t expect, after months of rapturous acclaim and Academy Awards, is how little else the film would offer me.
Maybe it was too much hype. Maybe I’ve just lost my taste for this sort of thing, this kind of soft-spoken, middlebrow slice of local color with a heaping helping of self-pity. The type of movie that clogged arthouses and video store shelves throughout the late ’90s and mid-aughts, where supporting players in studio films came to shine and has-beens came to be re-evaluated. Think Steve Buscemi in Tree’s Lounge, or Thomas Hayden Church in Sideways, or the bizarre William H. Macy hitman drama Panic. Films about men (almost always, and almost always white) who carry burdens and punish themselves (be it alcoholism disguised as wine obsession in Sideways or sniffing model airplane glue in Love Liza), until some presence (often a woman, sometimes a kid, sometimes both) attempts to make a connection. Said man then treats said woman/kid/both like shit, testing our patience and suspension of disbelief that this man is in any way worth the trouble he causes, until we are thrown the barest scrap of a smile or some small state-of-grace gesture to let us know that yes, character development has occurred, and yes, the movie’s over now.
Manchester follows this playbook to a T. Even before he learns of his brother’s death, Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is already living the monastic, self-flagellating life–working as a handyman for a Quincy apartment complex, staying in a dreary garden-level studio, and avoiding all social interaction other than brawling with drunk yuppies. He once had a happy life in the titular coastal town, with a wife and three kids, until a tragedy of his own making struck. Now, the death of his older brother/father figure Joe (Kyle Chandler) has brought him back to Manchester by the Sea, where he must make funeral arrangements and take care of Joe’s teenage son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges).
Lonergan’s script sidesteps some cliches in refreshing ways. Patrick, for one, is not a troubled kid, or even particularly rebellious. Before and after his father’s death, he’s on the hockey team, plays in a band, juggles two girlfriends, and has dreams of continuing the family fishing business. He does not spiral with grief, and seems more than amenable to Lee being his guardian. A mid-film panic attack shows us that he is not unaffected by his father’s death, but sorrow is just one part of his life, not the whole thing.
And the tragedy of Lee’s past, that he accidentally set his house on fire and killed his three children, is addressed fairly early on, where a lesser film might have saved that reveal for the end. It is a harrowing scene, seen in a flashback, crosscut with the reading of Joe’s will. The scene ends in horror and despair, as three tiny bodybags are pulled from the smoking debris, but then there’s an odd moment of physical comedy, nearly slapstick, as the paramedics struggle to load the gurney holding Lee’s wife Randi (Michelle Williams, valiantly dropping her Rs all over the place) into the ambulance. It’s a moment that should be the film in miniature, the way tragedy and normalcy live side-by-side, but instead feels out of place, because other than that blazing, hellish moment, neither Lonergan nor Affleck allow themselves to get too worked up about anything for those bursts of comedy to show through.
Lonergan’s script and direction are intertwined with Affleck’s performance, and in a sense they become one and the same. Lee has a habit of running away from, or otherwise avoiding, any moment of redemption or connection, and the film not only lets him get away with it, time and again, but keeps coming back for more. Nearly every woman with a speaking part throws herself at Lee. One tenant confesses to a friend on the phone that she’s obsessed with him, as he fixes her toilet within earshot. Another tenant, dressed in what appears to be a bathrobe with a negligee underneath, angrily interprets his request to turn on her shower (to find the source of a leak) as him wanting to watch her take a shower. A woman at a bar spills her drink on him (accidentally?) and tries to start a conversation, which goes nowhere. The mother of one of Patrick’s girlfriends repeatedly invites him to dinner, leading to a few moments of cringe comedy as she tries to make conversation with our mumbly hero. And in Michelle Williams’ one big scene, Randi works herself into a teary mess, forgiving Lee for killing their children and begging him to forgive himself, and maybe can they have lunch sometime? Lee demurs and beats a hasty retreat from all this emotion, and at a certain point I started to wonder if Affleck won the Oscar for Best Not Looking People In the Eye. The only woman uninterested in Lee’s rehabilitation is Sue (Erica McDermott) a one-scene, one-line character who works at the boat yard; after Lee stops by and asks his old friend Jerry (Brian A. White) if there’s any extra work to be found, Sue steps out from her office and tells Jerry, “I don’t wanna see him around here anymore.” It’s hard to shake the idea that maybe Sue is right.
(Sidebar: The film also embraces the unfortunate cliche of women as killjoys, there to ruin guys’ harmless fun. Gretchen Mol shows up in a two-scene role as Patrick’s estranged alcoholic-turned-born-again-Christian mother, and the film unironically shares Lee’s low opinion of her. And Williams’ only other big scene has her breaking up Lee’s drug-and-booze-and-Ping Pong party, which, in a roundabout way, causes the fire that kills their children. This is very much Lee’s film, and Patrick’s to a lesser extent, but it begs the question why women have to suffer for men to be redeemed.)
But the problem is, Sue is completely alone in that estimation of Lee. In fact, the whole fucking town welcomes him back, just as those women do. And about that town: Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea is lovely, and picturesque, and white white white. Now I know that New England can be notoriously inhospitable to people of color, but the fact that the town includes not a single South Asian convenience store, or Chinese restaurant, or a single non-white actor, marks it as a figment of Lonergan’s imagination, and an oddly conservative one at that. His Manchester is the stuff of postcard Boomer nostalgia , filled with barrel-chested, successful fishermen and their brassy wives, where every bar plays classic R&B (instead of the shitty rock music that is the soundtrack to every real life corner bar in America), and everyone knows each other’s business. It’s a north shore Lake Wobegon; it’s Mayberry by the Sea; it’s a Manic Pixie Dream Town. No one but Sue seems uneager to have Lee Chandler back in town, but as he spurns every chance given to him to make a new life for himself, I start to wonder: Why are we wasting our time with this guy?
This is the problem with the sad-sack indie genre, with the Visitors and Love Lizas and Garden States of the world, where withdrawn loners really have beautiful souls, if only some woman/kid/town would take never-ending abuse and/or disinterest to find them. It’s a wonderfully romantic notion, especially for writers who might consider themselves withdrawn loners with beautiful souls, but in a way it’s as toxic a cliche as the girl who’s pretty once she takes off her glasses. I was hoping for a film that would interrogate, maybe even subvert that cliche, and what I got instead was an enthusiastic, yet very well-made, example of it, like an artisanal cheeseburger that nonetheless is still just meat and bread and cheese. I’m not mad, Manchester By the Sea, just disappointed.