Kenneth Lonergan’s slice of downbeat small town East coast life commences with us following Casey Affleck’s social awkward Lee Chandler. He misjudges interactions with others, fails to make small talk, and when he does react, it is with violence. Like Camus’s L’Etranger he missteps and is unable to make the appropriate social response. Like much else in the movie it doesn’t overplay this portrayal of dissolution to a caricature of a misanthrope. But this is contrasted with Chandler episodes interacting with his wife, children and nephew Patrick, where he is charming and relaxed.
Through this episodic process the cause of Chandler’s transformation from easy going regular guy to aggressive loner is revealed. Simultaneously the demise of Chandler’s brother through heart disease unfolds. This leaves Lee as the guardian of the 16 year old Patrick, but in order to do so he is required to move back to Manchester from Boston. Back to the scene of his tragedy. Patrick sets out his desire to stay in Manchester: “I’m on the hockey team, I have two girlfriends…” whereas Lee has no hooks. This is the essence of the film – what is it in our environment that gives it meaning.
This is no About a Boy, there is no simple redemption and return to normal life for Lee through the unexpected responsibility of looking after his nephew. Several of the usual tropes are teasingly brought in – a possible love interest with the mother of Patrick’s girlfriend, a bonding project over the renovation of a boat, a reconciliation with his ex wife. It is as if Lonergan is taunting us – you think you know exactly how this will unfold from here, but it won’t, because real life isn’t like that.
Ultimately it’s a superior piece of afternoon film melodrama. Lee is like a less hopeful character from an Anne Tyler novel. There is no uplifting ending, just muted, awkward and painful reality.
PS – I’d happily live in Manchester by the sea: hockey, picturesque houses, sea.