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Manchester By The Sea

There’s a definite independent movie feel to Manchester By The Sea – the ‘Manchester’ in question is a coastal town in Massachusetts, officially ‘Manchester-by-the-Sea’, as opposed to the Manchester in New Hampshire (let alone the Manchester in Lancashire, which was the only one in my frame of reference prior to seeing the billboards for this motion picture). At the centre of the movie’s narrative is Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), who quickly wins the affections of a tenant in the suite of apartments for whom he serves as handyman, but loses his patience with other difficult customers, particularly a Mrs Olsen (Missy Yager), who swears profusely at him, so he eventually swears back. Elsewhere, there are pub fights that keep occurring as the film progresses, but not the story does not unfold in strict chronological order, and some work is required on the audience’s part to piece everything together. Fair enough: it keeps things interesting and intriguing, and there wasn’t too much to work out, so it was never confusing.

As someone who is totally shit at expressing himself properly in social situations (I’m one of those that thinks of the perfect responses either on the Tube home or at some point the following day), I had a lot of empathy for Lee, even if I don’t bother thumping people who irritate me to the hilt – mostly because that would involve too much thumping. An underlying long-term medical condition, details of which are disclosed in the course of the film’s narrative, affect Lee’s brother Joe (Kyle Chandler), and he passes suddenly. As with the underlying condition, the circumstances of his death are known to those who’ve seen the film. No doubt if this was a play, this actor would come back on at some point as someone else, but, as it goes, we don’t see him again, at least not chronologically speaking.

This presents a problem: Lee is, again for various reasons that the script makes clear, the only viable ‘guardian’ for Joe’s son Patrick (an astonishingly convincing Lucas Hedges). There’s a lot of pain and heartache that Lee encounters, after his own children pass away in a house fire, though I take it (unless I am very much mistaken) this happened before his brother died. The response from the authorities fascinated me – I would have thought, given the precise particulars, Lee might have had to stand trial for manslaughter. But the local police were quite clear that no criminal act had been committed. It even stuns Lee: “You mean, I can go?!”

There’s no group therapy, or expensive one-on-one therapy, or anything like that critical moment in Good Will Hunting when Matt Damon’s Will breaks down in front of Robin Williams’ Sean (“It’s not your fault” repeated ad infinitum). The guy just knuckles down and gets on with it, as so many of us have to do with the harsh realities of life. I loved how the practicalities of dealing with Joe’s estate and Patrick’s schooling and upkeep kept coming to the fore. One minute Lee is trying to sort out his own domestic affairs – geographical inconvenience being just one aspect – and another he’s driving Patrick to a band practice session, or giving him money for an ice cream, or trying to converse with the mother of Patrick’s girlfriend long enough for the young ‘uns to get some bedroom activity before dinner. And on, and on, and on. It’s as relentless as daily living is.

Generous doses of humour, either because of blokey banter or because of an awkward scenario – there’s plenty of both – provide another layer to this already deep and thoughtful movie. It could have been rather snooty and pretentious, what with all that music at apparently pivotal moments, and the deadpan stare that Lee has more often than not. All in all, though, it’s a riveting and captivating couple of hours at the pictures.

Four stars

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