Assuming you found the new Kenneth Lonergan movie “Manchester by the Sea” showing somewhere in town, the story you would see dramatized would be simple enough.
Lee Chandler (played by Casey Affleck) was married and had three children. He obviously loved his kids and his wife Randi (Michelle Williams). One night when he had been carousing with friends, he loaded up the fireplace at the house and walked to a nearby convenience or liquor store and back.
When he returned his house was burning. His wife was rescued, but all three kids died. Randi divorced him after saying some horrible things about him. But he was not charged with any wrong-doing. He left the small town of the film’s title and moved to Boston, where he became a handyman at an aging apartment complex.
Several years later his brother dies. The will asks him to become guardian for his 17year-old nephew. Because of his history as a parent, Lee is afraid he would be a bad guardian, and Patrick (Lucas Hedges) is both rebellious and grief-stricken.
But there is no other family member around to take the boy. His mother is an apparently reformed alcoholic who is still practically incompetent, living a relatively middle-class life with her new husband (Matthew Broderick).
Lee at least wants to get out of the town which reminds him of the great catastrophe. But his nephew doesn’t want to leave his home, his school, his two girlfriends, his hockey team, and his garage band.
Riding patiently over Patrick’s stretches of being unreasonable, Lee finds solutions to most of the immediate problems, including the poor condition of the engine of the fishing boat Patrick will inherit. And Lee manages to see his ex-wife, whose well-intended conversation torments him.
Now, writer and director Lonergan (who is known mostly for “You Can Count on Me” and his screenplay for “The Gangs of New York”) apparently thought his story was too simple. In adding complexity he may have done some harm to the whole.
For example, the script suggests that Lee has trouble finding work in Manchester. So he wants to leave for Boston not only because his old hometown reminds him of his failures but because he can’t support himself. His wife’s old, grief-driven complaints about him may still be keeping people from giving him work. Certainly everybody in town seems to know his story.
But this still fairly long film doesn’t have enough time to confirm the reason he can’t find employment locally. And the issue distracts the viewer from more central concerns.
Then, too, there’s the business about his temper. Lee shows early on in the movie that he can see red for a few minutes now and then. But all he does on those occasions is curse antagonists, including a snarky passerby who remarks “Great parenting” when he hears Lee and Patrick arguing in a parking lot as they work out their sadness about Lee’s brother’s death.
That passerby is played by the writerdirector, and I believe it is him who appears in a barroom, late in the film, and is decked by a sudden punch from drunken Lee. One feels like cheering the punch, but then does this complication contribute to the story proper?
And what about the flashbacks? The movie is studded with regular flashbacks, particularly about a boat excursion the brothers took young Patrick on at about the time of the fire. The night of that horrible event is also dramatized in a flashback, as is a scene showing Patrick’s mother at her worst and one showing how Patrick and his father helped Lee get established in Boston after the fire and the divorce.
But in the first third or so of the movie, the flashbacks are badly set-up. The appearances of the characters don’t establish the time of the events (we don’t really know who Patrick is, yet), and the movie doesn’t do anything mechanical to set the flashbacks off from other scenes.
Still, “Manchester on the Sea” is a very real movie, and one which allows Affleck in particular a lot of opportunities to act. If emotional reality and lots of acting sound good to you, try to find the film in town. It wasn’t on the Carmike website 24 hours before the first Friday showing.