THE NEW YORKER: Not that Kenneth Lonergan, who wrote and directed the movie, is deliberately making things hard for us to grasp. Rather, he proceeds on the assumption that things are hard, some irreparably so, and that it’s the job of a film not to smooth them over. That is why “Manchester by the Sea” becomes a litany of human error, with the tragic parts nicked and grazed by semi-comedy. We get minor misunderstandings, as when Joe’s best friend, the robust and reliable George (C. J. Wilson), has to shout to his wife across a crowded wake. We get dreadful mistimings, worthy of a farce, as when medics try and fail to fold the wheels of a gurney so that it can be loaded into an ambulance. Worst of all, we get stupid little mistakes, near-nothings, with consequences so vast that they reduce a life to ashes.
The town of the title is deftly sketched, both in its colors—you can’t always tell where the gray of the ocean ends and the winter air begins—and in the smallness of its scale. Everybody seems to know of one another. “That’s the Lee Chandler?” and “The very one,” people say, when Lee returns to sort out Joe’s affairs, and the lawyer who reads the will, in his office, wears a sweater and no tie. To Lee’s alarm, he is named as the legal guardian of Patrick (Lucas Hedges), Joe’s son, who is sixteen, and has absolutely no wish to move to Boston. “All my friends are here, I’ve got two girlfriends, I’m in a band,” he says to Lee. “You’re a janitor in Quincy.” Patrick thinks of moving in with his mother (Gretchen Mol), not far away, but she has the glassy brittleness of an ex-drunk, and one lunch with her and her pious new husband (Matthew Broderick) is enough to scotch that plan.
Much of the story, then, involves Lee keeping company with Patrick—driving him around, to school or to band practice, and watching him tack back and forth between girls. Many scenes are funnier than you’d expect (“This could be good for both of us,” Patrick says, trying to set Lee up with one of the girls’ mothers), and Hedges is convincing as the kid, who seems to be handling grief suspiciously well. Indeed, his only false note is a crying jag, as the sneers and grins of his natural cockiness yield to implausible sobs. If you feel ashamed to be laughing, then Lonergan has got you exactly where he wants you—stirred and confounded, casting around for breaks in the cloud of sadness. Hollywood likes to insist that by meeting one special person, be it lover, alien, or friend, you can heal and be healed in turn. Lonergan tends to the wounds that never close, and although “Manchester by the Sea” concludes in peace, it’s the peace of compromise and exhaustion, as if family existence were a type of civil war. MORE