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‘Manchester by the Sea’ is a complete picture of grief

Few movies provide as pensive an examination of grief as did last year’s “Manchester by the Sea,” and with the film set to be shown at UIS next Friday, it feels appropriate to revisit it.

Much has been made of the acting of Casey Affleck and the writing of Kenneth Lonergan, but there’s a lot more going on in this piece than just the work of these two men.

Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a lonely, withdrawn handyman who, when he finds out his brother Joe has died, heads back to his childhood home of Manchester-by-the-Sea to look after Patrick (Lucas Hedges), Joe’s son.

The film’s central conflict stems from Lee’s being asked (via Joe’s will) to act as Patrick’s guardian – a major responsibility, and one that carries a heavy emotional weight as a result of an eventually revealed tragedy in Lee’s life.

But another important aspect of this film is that this conflict is so multifaceted, especially when we get to see Lee spend more time in the town he has very pointedly abandoned.

Besides being the site of personal tragedy, in Manchester Lee is treated like an outcast, with every aspect of the town and every person on the street less than receptive to his return and his actions.

So we see as much conflict within Lee as we do outwardly between Lee and this town where he clearly has not belonged for a long time.

It’s hard to offer enough praise for Affleck as he shoulders this heavy role; Affleck is as effective when he speaks (and this is an eventual occurrence in most conversations) as when he doesn’t, with every hunch of his shoulders and downcast glance reflecting the terrible past and internal turmoil of Lee.

But the film isn’t monotonous in its somber grieving, and Lonergan’s writing shines as much in sadness as it does in the personable banter between Lee and Patrick, who seems to be the only person Lee thoroughly cares about.

I never hesitate to praise the writing of Aaron Sorkin for its breakneck scenes and mouthy characters, and Lonergan’s screenplay takes similar devices and gives them a spin of intense realism.

Characters talk over each other as often as they don’t speak at all, and the stop-start nature of many of the conversations between other characters and Lee lets the audience understand that, despite his personal tragedy generating sympathy and even pity, Lee is still a very frustrating person to deal with.

Every line counts, and the script gives each piece of dialogue even more importance almost entirely through the cadence of conversations, lending the film a sort of quiet brilliance.

The intense emotional weight and struggle is punctuated by moments of levity, which really is how a lot of life works.

Further demonstrating the brilliance of Lonergan is how he’ll often cut in scenes lasting not even 10 seconds, with as little as a single line of dialogue, further driving home just how vital a single moment can be.

The film is slow, there’s no question of that. But it’s also fascinating to watch unfold, as we dive as deep as possible into Lee’s past and his struggle to address how he could even begin to serve as a guardian for his nephew.

“Manchester by the Sea” is not uplifting by any means, but it carefully and thoughtfully examines the grieving process through Lee and everyone around him.

“Manchester by the Sea,” rated R, will be shown at the Brookens Auditorium on May 5 as part of the NPR Illinois Foreign and Independent Film Series.

Like my reviews? Give me a shout on Twitter at @MovieMuseSean.

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