When you are deep in the throes of depression, everything around you feels like white noise. You can barely register the sound of people talking to you. It’s all just echoes that takes a backseat to your brain’s endless ruminations over whatever it is that’s making you miserable.
Finally, a question cuts through the fog: “Hey, are you OK?” You snap out of it just for a brief second to mumble something like “Huh? Oh…yeah, yeah I’m fine.” And then you’re back in that internal abyss, gazing at the floor with a thousand-yard stare as the world you feel so detached from continues to spin around you.
You will be hard pressed to find a character who embodies depression with such heartbreaking accuracy as Casey Affleck’s Lee Chandler in “Manchester by the Sea.” And it is that painfully honest portrait that should push Kenneth Lonergan’s film to a Best Picture win at this year’s Oscars.
The process Lonergan and Casey Affleck use to slowly unravel Lee’s despair should serve as a master class in evoking empathy in an audience. First, we see Lee exhibiting the obvious symptoms of depression. He’s at a bar, a woman accidentally spills a drink on him, but she uses the incident to try to start a conversation. But he’s caught in that thousand-yard stare, and pretty soon she’s gone.
Later, we see Lee at the hospital after his brother (Kyle Chandler) has died, and again, he’s doing the absolute minimum in interacting with doctors and his brother’s grieving friend. It is only after we have a grasp on Lee’s state of mind through flashbacks that we understand how he wound up in a basement apartment in Boston wasting away as a lonely janitor.
As all of this happens, we see another character struggle with a different level of grief: Lee’s nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Again, Lonergan shows how difficult dealing with grief can be, especially for a teenager.
But unlike Lee, Patrick is able to go through the process. He has devoted friends who are there for him. His coach and hockey team immediately rally behind him. He still has tough moments, such as struggling to reconnect with his recovering alcoholic mother, but there is a clear light at the end of the tunnel for Patrick.
But there is no such escape for Lee. What makes “Manchester By The Sea” such a brave film is that it refuses to push an easy moral that all you have to do to triumph over your inner demons is to “just let go.” Lonergan confronts the idea that there are some things you can’t just move on from, and that the comforting idea that your life doesn’t have to be defined by a single, grievous mistake might not always prove true.
“Manchester” is often listed with “Moonlight” as the two films most likely to unseat “La La Land” on Oscar night, and in some respects “Manchester” and “Moonlight” are companion pieces. Both unflinchingly tackle modern ideas of masculinity and how men can suffer when they don’t live up to those ideals. “Moonlight” protagonist Chiron walls himself off emotionally because of his homosexuality. Lee walls himself off because of his failure as a father, which in turn causes him to struggle to be a good caretaker for Patrick.
“Manchester” weaves a tale that transcends cultural boundaries. Yes, the cast is entirely white and the story takes much of its details from New England’s North Shore culture, but Lonergan has such a knack for human interaction and internal conflict that Lee and Patrick feel like they could come from any town or ethnicity. Countless teenagers have lost their parents far too early. Countless adults know what it’s like to be forever haunted by that One Bad Thing.
Lonergan couples that human struggle with an empathetic approach to those who, like Lee, are forced to admit to their loved ones that they “can’t beat it.” But even though Lee has accepted that he will never return to a life even remotely resembling the one he had before, that doesn’t mean he can’t play a meaningful role in the lives of those close to him.
“Manchester by the Sea” reaches a conclusion that provides hope without giving its characters an easy fix to all their problems, leaving us to wonder if Lee and Patrick can continue to slowly move forward.
In between hope and cynicism, Lonergan has forged a tale about trauma built on candor and compassion, and this makes it worthy of being named the best film of the year.