Manchester by the Sea begins with a happy memory—Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) horsing around with his young nephew Patrick on their fishing trawler, as his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) looks on laughing. But the action unfolds from a distance; the camera hovers far up in the sky, backed with a melancholy choral score. It’s telling of how grim Kenneth Lonergan’s new film is that, even its early, happier recollections of Lee’s life feel haunted.
Manchester by the Sea goes on to be a fantastic meditation on the long tail of trauma, but one that doesn’t wallow needlessly: There’s such humor and humanity at work that the film manages to be cathartic. Rather than focus on the lowest point in Lee’s life—the tragedy that drove him from the film’s titular town and estranged him from his wife Randi (Michelle Williams)—Lonergan moves back through time freely, showing specific moments in Lee’s past, even as he struggles with a new challenge: being a surrogate father to the now-teenaged Patrick after Joe dies.
It’s a simple-seeming setup for a family drama. Lee, who works as a janitor for an apartment complex near Boston and appears to live an emotionally spartan existence, is summoned back to the fishing town of Manchester to take care of Patrick (Lucas Hedges). The shock of Joe’s death is blunted somewhat by the knowledge that he suffered from a congenital heart condition. In flashbacks, viewers see Joe, affably played by Chandler, as the warm lynchpin of his extended family, a steadying figure whose absence feels immediate and profound. Where Joe was reliable and garrulous, Lee is prickly and taciturn, going through the mourning process as though he’s done it before.