Grief is a difficult emotion to portray without falling into melodrama. The tropes that are often used to express it exist because they contain some grain of truth as to how we deal with loss. Toeing the line only becomes harder when you take into account the fact that everyone copes differently. Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea is the rare film that manages (for the most part) to eschew the usual trappings of grief, grounding its characters in quiet, human interactions that only make it more affecting when the metaphorical dam finally breaks.
Casey Affleck plays Lee Chandler, who is summoned back to his hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea when his older brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), suffers a heart attack. By the time he arrives, Joe has passed away. What had originally been intended to be a relatively brief stay becomes more complicated when Lee discovers that Joe meant for him to become his son Patrick’s (Lucas Hedges) guardian, and contends with the past that drove him to leave home in the first place. The overall story is nothing new, but as soon as the movie’s premise is set, it moves into a structure that’s more fluid, exploring the lives of its characters rather than pushing them down a determined path. Not every interaction following a loss has to be defined by sadness, and to that end, the film’s sense of humor is one of the more striking things about it. Jokes — and stolidly trying to maintain a sense of normalcy — are as much a coping mechanism as anything else.
To wit, where Manchester by the Sea truly excels is in using dialogue either in quiet, everyday interactions, or not at all. Exposition is given almost completely wordlessly. Entire sequences play out without a single audible word spoken between characters, and in a couple of cases, without any diegetic sound at all. Lonergan knows how to use silence, and how to use the medium he’s working in, letting images play out and juxtaposing the action with simple choral and classical music. The movie is best when it’s showing, not telling, and accomplishes more with this kind of simplicity than others do with pages and pages of dialogue.