Manchester by the Sea is a deep dive into personal and family trauma. The movie opens showing Lee Chandler, a handyman for apartment buildings, going about his daily repairs for tenants. He seems calm, collected, and competent until he deals with an irate tenant. We see the first glimpse of his anger followed by a fight in a bar. Clearly, he has some anger that he is dealing with.
Lee is a loner. He lives alone in a small apartment in the basement of one of the buildings that he maintains. He works alone. He doesn’t interact with people more than the bare minimum. And then he gets a phone call. His brother has died. He is pulled into the world of interacting with others, interacting with family.
Throughout, the movie intersperses scenes from the past with the present. Fun times with people on a fishing boat turn out to be him with his brother and nephew. Another scene shows his brother and family in a hospital room, hearing the news about his brother’s congestive heart disease. Other scenes show his own family, a wife, two young daughters, and a baby boy.
And then we discover the reasons behind his current situation, both his aloofness and his anger. He lost his children in a house fire and his wife to a subsequent divorce. He inadvertently caused the fire that set in motion the calamity that engulfed his life.
The death of his brother pulls him back into reality. His brother appointed Lee guardian of his sixteen-year old son with all the responsibilities for the house, the boat, and the finances. This is not something that Lee wants. He struggles to deal with it as Patrick struggles with the death of his father and the upheaval to his life.
The death of Lee’s children and now Joe’s death are not the only traumas. The movie points to trauma all around. Patrick seeks to connect with his estranged former alcoholic mom who abandoned the family. Lee encounters his ex-wife Randi, now married and expecting a child, who carries guilt and love for Lee.
The movie emphasizes that we are not alone in our trauma, or more aptly, we are all alone in our individual traumas but together in that we all experience trauma. Trauma touches everyone who reacts in their own individual way.
The movie conveys a second message: trauma never leaves. We carry it around every day for the rest of our lives. We cannot escape it. We do not heal from it. At best, we continue to live but it informs everything we do: how we think, how we see the world, and how we see ourselves.
Manchester by the Sea seems like a realistic portrayal of what it means to be human. Grief and trauma that we experience may ebb and flow but they never leave. They pop up in expected and unexpected times, like the dream that Lee has of his daughters warning him about a fire in the present, started by sauce that he is heating on the stove.
If you are lucky, you escape trauma and grief in childhood. But it will eventually strike and be something you encounter again and again. Perhaps this is why the movie touched me.
The question is how do you deal with the trauma and the grief each and every time you are forced to face it during your life?