At most times, I avoid watching Indian as well as Hollywood films at MAMI festivals because I know that they will invariably wend their way to city theatres unlike exotic fare from far-flung countries. But I am happy I made an exception for Kenneth Lonnergan's Manchester By The Sea.
Subtle emotions embedded into a tale of unbearable heartbreak is the hallmark of this textured film - making the humor (there's loads of it), tenderness, pain and grief all so palpable and real. When you first meet efficient but stoic janitor Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) who lacks basic etiquette and has a penchant for brawling, you realise he is deeply disturbed. As the film unfurls, with the aid of fragmented flashbacks, you gather that Lee is burdened by relentless guilt - his brood of three children were gutted in a fire that was started by his drunken negligence. And his tragedy is compounded when his wife Randi (Michelle Williams) castigates him and leaves.
Lee would have spent the rest of his life unclogging people's toilets and drowning in his heartbreak, but the unexpected death of his beloved older brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler) demands he once again look outside rather than within. Lee has to travel back to the place of his tragedy (the titular Manchester by the Sea) where he finds himself unhappily saddled with the guardianship of his 16-year-old nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges).
Lee strains to establish a workable equation but Patrick doesn't want an authority figure. There is a deep, unarticulated bond between uncle and nephew but also a tug of war between Lee's detached caution and Patrick's insistence on the freedom to make choices typical of an adolescent with raging hormones. Fortunately, Patrick and Lee's rocky relationship is enlivened by some of the crispiest, most caustically funny dialogue I have heard in recent years.
Hedges manages to portray both the rebelliousness and the acute sensitivity of a teen. Particularly poignant is the sequence in which Patrick tries to reconnect with his alcoholic mother.
Lee's winter of discontent (that finds visual expression in knee-deep snow and grey skies expressively shot by cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes) seems to have become a part of his psyche. And Casey Affleck's brooding performance haunts you.
Michelle Williams and Affleck are absolutely top notch in a scene which brought a lump to my throat and was, for me, the best scene in the festival. Randi is wheeling her baby from her second husband in a pram when she bumps into Lee and insists on a chat. She breaks down and in a realistically jumbled speech with broken sentences, she apologizes for her harshness and acknowledges their shared grief ... But you feel helpless for both Randi and Lee. Can some pain ever be eased? Can some hearts ever be unbroken?