It’s a typical Hollywood scene that screams “Tragedy ahead!”- four people standing solemnly around a hospital bed, while the occupant is soberly informed that he has until age fifty or sixty to live, due to a heart condition. “It’s a bad disease,” the woman in the lab coat intones. “What is a good disease?” quips the guy in the bed (Kyle Chandler), and the replies come instantly because in the movies, everyone is a stand-up comedian. However, in “Manchester By the Sea,” someone (the only woman present) gets fed up and takes off. You can almost hear the directing team congratulate themselves on avoiding that cliché, and since they do this many other times, they deserve it. This is not a movie where the terminally ill suffer from Ali McGraw disease and get to expire bathed in golden light. No, here the deceased wind up in a freezer because it’s mid-winter, something that bothers his brother (Casey Affleck) and son (Lucas Hedges) a lot, but can’t be remedied. As Casey points out, the cost of renting a machine to do the digging is astronomical, plus they can’t even afford a new engine for their boat.
Casey Affleck once played a dim-bulb in a trio of teens who Nicole Kidman manipulated to kill her husband in “To Die For,” and he was quite convincing as he is here playing a man who has suffered a horrifying tragedy resulting in the loss of his children, was probably not too socially adept to begin with, and has what a shrink would call anger management (and alcohol) issues. However, this is the kind of movie where the characters deal with problems by taking the family boat out to fish, rather than say, visit Judd Hirsch or Robin Williams. After Kyle passes away, Casey learns that he has been given custody of his nephew, something which doesn’t please either him or Lucas. Casey, because he lives an hour away and while not thrilled with his handyman job back home, is more or less satisfied, and also because who in their right mind would want such a surprise sprung on them? Lucas, for his part, because he already has a life, and what with being on the ice hockey team and having two girlfriends who don’t know about each other, doesn’t want to wreck a good thing. (May I just ask how, in this day and age, anyone manages such a feat? It didn’t seem plausible, but that was my only quibble.)
Another reason why Casey is less than eager to move back is because everyone knows him as the guy who caused the tragedy, plus his ex-wife (Michelle Williams) still lives in the area. But he deals with both things, one more successfully than the other. Meanwhile, in order to stay in the area, Lucas considers moving to his mother’s (Gretchen Mol) home where she lives with her second husband, Matthew Broderick, both of whom have found the Lord. This does not make for a particularly congenial visit – although it is sobering to see Ferris Bueller paunchy and middle-aged but with that trademark grin intact. In the end, things are resolved, though probably not the way the viewer expects. “Manchester By the Sea,” sounds as if it could be a British indie with lots of plummy accents and Oscar nods, but it takes place in the US, is far more down-to-earth, yet will probably snag at least one Oscar nomination. It’s one of those movies that I think will end up more admired than enjoyed, but it’s worth seeing, if you don’t mind the slow pace.