This isn’t a review, but a reflection. The movies that intrigue me do so because they explore questions like how we should live our lives, what makes for good (and bad) relationships, and how we come to be made whole or broken, saved or lost. I write about those movies to engage these and similar issues.

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When we first meet Lee Chandler (played by Casey Affleck)  at the start of Kenneth Lonergan’s film Manchester by the Sea, it’s evident that something isn’t right with him. Lee, an apartment building janitor, goes about his work without complaint–shoveling snow, fixing faucets, and the like–but won’t supply even the slightest social lubricant to grease interactions with the residents he encounters. In fact, he seems to deliberately provoke one woman who is a bit obdurate about the matter of a leaky tub. He lives by himself in a basement room and spends his evening drinking by himself in a bar, where he ignores a flirting woman but takes offense when a couple of guys  look at him from across the room, picking a fight with them. Lee is troubled, but there is no indication of what might be troubling him. That makes him enigmatic. Ty Burr of the Boston Globe describes the movie as “a ghost story about a man who’s still alive,” and that’s about right.

In Lee’s case, it turns out that the ghost is himself haunted, as we learn from a series of flashbacks that are intercut with Lee’s response to a family crisis. He receives word that his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler)  is hospitalized. Joe dies while Lee is en route from South Boston to Manchester, on the North Shore. Joe’s will names Lee custodian of Patrick (Lucas Hedges), Joe’s spirited, temperamental teenage son. Joe’s plan was that Lee would move back to Manchester to care for Patrick, something Lee emphatically doesn’t want to do. About an hour into the film, we learn why: he had experienced a devastating tragedy when living there. It’s no wonder that he wants to be far away from reminders of what happened.

As a psychologist, I deal regularly with people who have suffered from trauma, usually either wartime combat or childhood abuse. Many of them are like Lee, trying to distract themselves from what happened but nonetheless pursued by it, easily swept into the maelstrom of memory. Scenes of past interactions between Lee and a younger Patrick show that Lee once had a playful, lighthearted side. As with some of my clients, that playful self has been lost. Like them, Lee’s interactions with others produce not joy but awkwardness, irritation, and withdrawal.

Lee tries to do the right thing. He delays his return to Boston and moves in with Patrick, driving his nephew to school and band practice, He doesn’t know quite what to do with a teenage boy: when Patrick indicates that he wants one of his two girlfriends to spend the night, a puzzled Lee asks, “Am I supposed to tell you to use a condom?” Sometimes he is arbitrary, as when he decides he doesn’t want Patrick’s other girlfriend to visit, announcing “I don’t like her. Sorry.” He is cross and uncommunicative, as might be expected of someone who is trying his best to suppress the feelings constantly churning within. Looking out over Manchester in one scene, he is suddenly moved to frenzy, putting his fist through a window. Later, Patrick notices his bandaged hand. Their exchange goes like this:

Patrick: What happened to your hand?
Lee: I hurt it.
Patrick: (Smiling) For a minute there I didn’t know what happened to it.

Patrick sees the ludicrous side to Lee’s strained reticence, but Lee is too caught up in his struggles to notice the humor.

We like our stories to be redemptive, for healing to occur and people to grow as a result of their tragedies. Movies often cater to such desires. There is such a thing as post-traumatic growth–positive psychological change resulting from negative experiences. The mistake we make is to think that good always comes from adversity. Manchester-by-the-Sea reminds us that not every calamity has a happy ending. Lee never recovers his playful, buoyant self; we see only a faint echo of that self at the very end.  When his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams) attempts to reach out to him, he can’t connect meaningfully with her. He appears to be permanently impaired.

Sometimes, as with Lee, the best we can manage is to soldier on courageously, doing what we think is required of us without any hope of receiving any joy or comfort in return. Here’s to the thousands of those for whom pain has become a way of life but are still trying to do what’s right. May they find peace.

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