Manchester by the Sea is an emotional study on grief. The plot centers around Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) a handyman that lives a life of limited human interactions. One day Lee receives the news that his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has passed away. After a meeting with his brother’s attorney, Lee discovers that he’s now the legal guardian of his nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Lee and Patrick struggle to adjust to this new lifestyle, and at the same time (thanks to the nonlinear storytelling that triggers flashbacks) Lee is forced to confront and relieve his past and the reasons that made him leave both his ex-wife, Randi (Michelle Williams), and the community of Manchester.
Just like in the case of Blue Valentine, or What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Manchester by the Sea seeks to portray a slice of life in the most realistic way possible. The director even subverts some cinematic norms in order to do so; in more traditional movies, the most emotional scenes are usually shot with teary close-ups, but in Manchester by the Sea, Lonergan pulls back the camera and obscures the dialogue with music, thus creating distance between viewer and characters.
The movie shows that oftentimes in real life the moments that have such big impacts on our lives, pass by unnoticed. Manchester by the Sea disrupts our idea of how big these moments should be; because mistakes, awkward or funny moments don’t stop when it’s time to handle something emotional. Another important message of the movie is that healing is something possible, but it won’t be cinematic.