The grief that consumes Lee Chandler—played by surefire Oscar nominee Casey Affleck in the magnificent Manchester By the Sea--isn't out of proportion. There are no Hollywood-sized waves of melodramatic sorrow crashing over this soulful young man. Rather, Lee quietly accepts his inward melancholy. As a result, his story of sadness never feels abstract or unfamiliar.
As the soft-spoken handyman of a small apartment building in the Boston suburb of Quincy, Mass., Lee's days are defined by shoveling snow, hauling garbage, fixing toilets and shoveling more snow. His subterranean life—he lives in the basement—is a perfect metaphor for his existence. He is jarred awake from his mundane routine one harsh winter day with the news his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler, in flashbacks), has died after a long bout with congestive heart disease. Worse, Lee is summoned to return to his hometown of Manchester in order to take care of his brother's modest will and testament.
The northern Massachusetts fishing community is technically known as Manchester-by-the-Sea and locals insist they don't live by "the ocean" or "the water." It's always "the sea," in deference to the pounding surges that carve its rugged shore. Manchester's weather is equally untamed. One of the first things Lee is reminded of upon his return is that winter is so brutal Manchester's ground is frozen rock-solid, thus making it impossible to bury the dead until a spring thaw. While Lee waits for winter to fade, he has to weather the cold reality of his once hometown.
"Say, is that the Lee Chandler?" whispers a passerby. "The very one," another answers.
With that, filmmaker Kenneth Lonergan's extraordinary script unwinds Lee's past, revealing why he is the loneliest man in town—or any town.
Manchester is Lonergan's third feature as a director, following You Can Count on Me in 2000, which catapulted Mark Ruffalo to stardom; and 2011's underappreciated Margaret. With Manchester by the Sea, which has already been named the Best Film of 2016 by the National Board of Review, Lonergan is receiving the best notices of his career and will almost certainly land on the Oscar shortlist for best director.
"Working with Ken Lonergan reminded me of why I wanted to be an actor in the first place," Affleck told Boise Weekly before the film's premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. "It's very rare that you'll have a story that is so evocative, so complete, so smart, so well-written... and even so funny, all at once."
Manchester by the Sea has plenty of much-need laughs in its Boston-bred authenticity. We're reminded that, in New England, people aren't afraid of sharks but are very afraid of "sh-AH-ks." The best science fiction television show of all time? It wasn't Star Trek, but "St-AH Trek." The film's Bostonian roots run deep: Not only does it star lifelong Red Sox and Patriots fan Casey Affleck (younger brother to A-list leading man Ben Affleck), but its producer is Massachusetts-born Matt Damon.
"And while our film may take place near Boston, our story could be anyone's story. I really think people will have a very personal experience when they see this film," Damon told BW jahead of the September premiere. "Our film gets you in touch with a lot of your own stuff, as a lot of very rare, great movies do."