Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) spends his days as a janitor in Boston. It’s not a great job, but it provides him with what he needs. Still, there remains an anger within him that comes out in inappropriate ways from time to time. When his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) dies, he must return to his home town of Manchester to deal with the arrangements. It’s not a place he wants to be—for a number of reasons. Manchester By the Sea is a story of moving through grief and finding new ways to face life.
Besides the funeral arrangements, Lee learns that Joe has named him guardian of Joe’s teen age son Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Lee really wants nothing to do with this responsibility because he doesn’t want to stay in Manchester. He is well known around the town. For many, he is “the Lee Chandler”. He also runs into his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams), which is awkward as Lee is trying to forget the pain they share. As the story progresses, we see what his life here was like. He was happy once but, a tragedy destroyed his life here, eventually leading him to the anonymity of Boston. Lee and Patrick must find the balance that allows them each to have the kind of life that will suit them. For Patrick, it is to find his way into adulthood. For Lee, however, it is how to find his way back out of his anger and pain.
In some ways, this is a slice-of-life story of a family in grief. It is a disconcerting experience that triggers emotions in strange ways. For example, since the ground is frozen, Joe can’t be buried until spring, and Patrick is distressed that his body will be kept in a freezer until then. As Lee comes to terms with his new responsibility there are plans that must be made, but they are the very kinds of responsibilities from which he has been running. While the road is difficult, Lee and Patrick find new ways to approach the trials before them.
Lee’s struggle is the real focus. It is only as we slowly learn the cause of his pain and anger that we can appreciate just how hard it is for him to return to Manchester and family life. The anger that, at times, comes to the surface in his life is really his anger with himself. His tragic mistake is something he cannot bring himself to forgive but, because he is thrust back into life with people who he loves and who love him, he is forced to come to terms with who he is and find ways to live with himself and his past.
Special features include a conversation with writer/director Lonergan, the making of featurette “Emotional Lives,” and some deleted scenes.