The story takes place in the present, while injecting the narrative with a series of flash-backs that inform the viewer about significant events from the past and the characters' motivations. The protagonist is Lee Chandler, a janitor and handyman in Quincy, Massachusetts, who lives a solitary life in a basement apartment.
The movie opens to various scenes of him performing a variety of tasks for the tenants of the apartment complex where he works. Even so, his interaction with the tenants is minimal. After being reprimanded by his boss for swearing at an irritated tenant, he gets into a drunken bar fight with two businessmen because he believes they were "looking" at him.
While shoveling snow, Lee receives word that his brother Joe has suffered cardiac arrest. Joe dies before Lee can get to the hospital, and Lee insists on being the one to tell Joe's teenage son, Patrick, about Joe's death. While making funeral arrangements, they learn that Joe's body cannot be buried until spring when the ground thaws, and it needs to be kept refrigerated until then, so Lee remains in Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts until the delayed burial. While reading Joe's will with Joe's lawyer, Lee is shocked to discover that Joe named him Patrick's guardian. During the scene, the viewer is shown—through flash-backs—that Lee once lived in Manchester with his then-wife Randi and their three small children, until his negligence while intoxicated led to a house fire that killed their children. No criminal charges were filed against him; however, after being questioned at the police station, Lee pulled a gun from a police officer's holster and attempted suicide. In light of these events, Lee remains reluctant to commit to the guardianship and unwilling to move back to Manchester, where the locals treat him as an outcast. Even so, he is opposed to Patrick's reconnecting with his mother (who through flash-backs is revealed to have substance abuse problems and to have abandoned the family), and so Lee begins planning for Patrick to move to Boston with him. Patrick—who is deeply rooted in the Manchester community—strongly objects to the idea. Lee only commits to staying through the end of the school year.
Over time, Patrick and Lee reestablish their bonds, although conflict continues to arise between them when it comes to making decisions about Joe's boat, Patrick's girlfriends, and their future living arrangements. Over Lee's objections, Patrick notifies his mother, Elise, of Joe's death by email, and she invites him to have lunch with her. She has found Christianity and sobriety with her fiancé, Jeffrey, but during an awkward meal with them, Patrick finds himself unable to connect with her. Patrick is further unsettled when Jeffrey emails him, insisting on being an intermediary in any future communication between Patrick and his mother. Additionally, Lee's positive comments about Elise's sobriety lead Patrick to believe that his uncle is trying to get rid of him, straining their relationship even more. As a result, Lee takes some steps to possibly extend his stay in Manchester, and he begins to seek ways to spend more time with Patrick.
One day, however, Lee runs into Randi, her newborn Dylan, and her friend Rachel. After Rachel leaves to get the car, a sobbing Randi expresses great remorse for her treatment of Lee during the divorce and asks him to have lunch with her. Despite being remarried, she confesses that she still loves him. He thanks her for her comments, but explains that "there's nothing there." When she insists that they reconnect and pleads with him to not "just die," he leaves before he can become emotional. Distraught, a drunk Lee picks a fight with strangers at a bar and gets knocked out, only to be rescued by George, a family friend. Lee awakens in George's home, and breaks down in tears. At home, Patrick shows his uncle deference after observing Lee's battered state, as well as the pictures of his deceased children that he keeps in the bedroom.
Soon after, Lee arranges for George and his wife to adopt Patrick so the teen can stay in Manchester while Lee gets a new job in Boston. When Patrick asks why Lee staying is not an option, Lee admits that he "can't beat it." At this, Patrick cries and Lee comforts him. During a walk after Joe's burial service, Lee tells Patrick that he is searching for a residence in Boston with an extra room, so that Patrick can visit whenever he wants. In the final scene, Lee and Patrick go fishing on Joe's refurbished boat that Patrick has inherited.Casey Affleck as Lee Chandler, a grief-stricken loner
Michelle Williams as Randi, Lee's ex-wife
Kyle Chandler as Joseph "Joe" Chandler, Lee's brother
Lucas Hedges as Patrick Chandler, 16-year-old son of Joe and Elise
Ben O'Brien as young Patrick
Gretchen Mol as Elise Chandler, Joe's former wife
C.J. Wilson as George, the Chandlers' family friend
Tate Donovan as Patrick's hockey coach
Kara Hayward as Silvie McGann, one of Patrick's girlfriends
Anna Baryshnikov as Sandy, one of Patrick's girlfriends
Heather Burns as Jill, Sandy's mother
Erica McDermott as Sue, boat yard boss
Matthew Broderick as Jeffrey, Elise's fiancé
Oscar Wahlberg as Joel, Patrick's friend
Stephen Henderson as Mr. Emery, Lee's boss
Josh Hamilton as Wes, Joe's Lawyer
Director Kenneth Lonergan appears briefly as a pedestrian.
The film is a treatment of profound grief from which it is difficult or impossible to recover. In an essay by Colin Fleming for Cineaste magazine, he says that "the question Lonergan invites us to ask ourselves is how on earth would we be able to carry on after an event so tragically full of loss and guilt." Speaking to the persistence of grief, Film Comment magazine says that "Lonergan is telling us that Lee's grief cannot be contained or subdued because his past lives on wherever he goes." Remarking on the way flash-backs appear suddenly in the movie, critic Anthony Lane says that Lonergan "proceeds on the assumption that things are hard, some irreparably so, and that it's the job of a film not to smooth them over." However, one critic noted that juxtaposed to the tragedy is "the harsh comedy that colors much of the dialogue, and the near-farcical frequency with which things go wrong." Along those same lines, critic Steven Mears called the film "a study of grief and reticence that finds droll humor in those very sources," and Richard Alleva says the loving but tense relationship between Lee and Patrick "keeps the story nicely balanced between rough hewn comedy and delicate pathos." Explaining his objective, Lonergan said, "I don't like the fact that, nowadays, it feels like it's not permissible to leave something unresolved... Some people live with their trauma for years. I'm not interested in rubbing people's faces in suffering... But I don't like this lie that everybody gets over things that easily. Some people can't get over something major that's happened to them at all; why can’t they have a movie too?"
The film's events takes place through the cultural filter of a blue-collar, New England community. John Krasinski and Matt Damon initially approached Lonergan about developing the story in New England. As Lonergan researched the areas surrounding Manchester-by-the-Sea, he sought to include details specific to the area, for example its distance from Quincy, the delayed burial because of the frozen ground in a historical cemetery, and the realities of fishing life. Critic Sam Lansky remarked that his New England roots make the lead character "disinclined to emote," and Tom Shone said that Lonergan's dialog forces "the story’s heartbreak to peep from behind these tough, flinty New England exteriors."
Matt Damon and John Krasinski had been brainstorming a film about an "emotionally crippled" handyman, and brought the idea to Lonergan for his input, with the idea that Krasinski would star and Damon would direct. Damon had previously worked with Lonergan in a play and on the 2011 film Margaret. Both actors became occupied with other projects while Lonergan worked on the screenplay for three years. After Damon read a rough draft of the film, he insisted that Lonergan should direct it and that he himself would star in it. They announced they would collaborate on the project on September 6, 2014, and pre-production began on September 8, 2014. However, Damon would not have a break in his schedule for another year, and in early December 2014, while filming The Finest Hours, Casey Affleck revealed to The Boston Globe that he would replace Damon in the role of Lee Chandler. Damon said he "wouldn't give this role up to anybody but Casey Affleck."
Affleck officially replaced Damon on January 5, 2015. Days later, Michelle Williams joined the cast (on January 9) as Lee Chandler's wife. Kyle Chandler signed onto the film that February 24, cast as Affleck's character's older brother. In April 2015, Lucas Hedges joined the cast of the film. Lonergan has said that Hedges' audition was "special", but that he was unsure of how the young actor would do "because his background is so different [from that of the character]. Ultimately he did a beautiful job." It was later revealed Erica McDermott had also joined the cast.
Gigi Pritzker was set to produce and finance the film through her company Odd Lot Entertainment. However, in March 2015, it was reported that Sierra / Affinity had come aboard to finance the film, while Kimberly Steward would produce and finance through her company K Period Media, Kevin J. Walsh through his company B Story, Chris Moore through CMP, and Damon through his company Pearl Street Films. The film was executive produced by Josh Godfrey, John Krasinski, Declan Baldwin, and Bill Migliore; Pritzker was no longer attached to produce.
Coming from a theater background, Lonergan had the actors do table read-style rehearsals for two weeks prior to filming.
Principal photography began on March 23, 2015, in the namesake town of Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts. On the second day, filming took place elsewhere on the North Shore, at locations in Beverly, Gloucester, Swampscott, Lynn, and Salem.
The film had its world premiere on January 23, 2016, at the Sundance Film Festival. Shortly after, Amazon Studios acquired U.S. distribution rights to the film for $10 million, beating out Sony Pictures Classics, Universal Pictures, Lionsgate, and Fox Searchlight. This was the second largest disclosed purchase, behind The Birth of a Nation at $17.5 million. Roadside Attractions, which Lionsgate owns 45% of, was later announced to be co-distributing the film with Amazon.
The film was screened at the Telluride Film Festival on September 2, 2016, the Toronto International Film Festival on September 8, 2016, the New York Film Festival on October 1, 2016, and the BFI London Film Festival on October 8, 2016. The film was theatrically released on November 18, 2016. The film was made available to stream on Amazon in the US on February 7, 2017, and on Amazon Prime on May 5 of that year.
Manchester by the Sea grossed $47.7 million in the United States and Canada and $28.1 million in other territories for a worldwide total of $75.8 million, against a production budget of $8.5 million.
The film began a limited release on November 18, 2016, and grossed $256,498 from four theaters for the weekend, making for a per-theater average of $64,125. It began a wide release on December 16, 2016, opening against Rogue One and Collateral Beauty, and grossed $4.2 million, finishing 6th at the box office.
Manchester by the Sea received universal critical acclaim, with praise going to Lonergan's direction and screenplay, as well as to the performances of Affleck, Williams and Hedges. Upon its premiere at the Sundance Festival, it immediately created buzz, with Rolling Stone calling it "the must-see film at this year's festival." On Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an approval rating of 96%, based on 269 reviews, with an average rating of 8.9/10. The site's critical consensus reads, "Manchester by the Sea delivers affecting drama populated by full-bodied characters, marking another strong step forward for writer-director Kenneth Lonergan." On Metacritic, the film has a score of 96 out of 100, based on 52 reviews, indicating "universal acclaim".
Giving the film five-out-of-five stars, Phil de Semlyen of Empire called the film "masterfully told and beautifully acted" and favorably compared Affleck's performance to that of Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront, saying "there’s not much higher praise than that." Justin Chang of Variety said it was a "beautifully textured, richly enveloping drama." Critic Peter Travers said the movie "ranks with the year’s very best films," and that "it takes a piece out of you." Matt Zoller Seitz of RogerEbert.com gave the film four-out-of-four stars, stating that it is "the kind of movie you'll want to see a second time with someone who hasn't seen it yet, to remember what it was like to watch it for the first time." Anthony Lane with The New Yorker called the film "carefully constructed, compellingly acted, and often hard to watch." Leah Greenblatt of Entertainment Weekly said that "the exquisitely crafted, emotionally ragged Manchester doesn’t just ask for time and effort; it earns it." The film was included on many end-of-year lists, including those of the American Film Institute, Rolling Stone, the BBC, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Post.
The scene which drew the most critical praise featured the characters Randi and Lee speaking again years after their divorce. Anthony Lane called it the "highlight" of the movie. Speaking of William's performance, Tom Shone said that "if this actress were put on earth to do one thing only, it would be this scene." Zoller called the scene "a duet of mortification and mercy that stacks up with the best of Mike Leigh (Secrets and Lies)...The effect is cathartic." Affleck says he strove to show restraint while acting the scene, explaining, "The challenge was to have all of those feelings and hold it without weeping and wailing and gnashing your teeth. To be there, and not be there."
Manchester by the Sea received six nominations at the 89th Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Affleck), Best Supporting Actor (Hedges), Best Supporting Actress (Williams) and Best Original Screenplay, winning two for Best Original Screenplay for Lonergan and Best Actor for Affleck. It was the first-ever film released by a digital streaming service to be nominated for Best Picture.
Affleck won the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama; the film was nominated for four additional awards at the 74th ceremony: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress (for Williams) and Best Screenplay.
Manchester by the Sea received six nominations at the 70th British Academy Film Awards, including Best Film, Best Direction, Best Actor in a Leading Role, Best Actress in a Supporting Role and Best Original Screenplay. Affleck won Best Actor in a Leading Role and Lonergan won Best Original Screenplay.
Lesley Barber was selected to score the film, as she had previously worked on Lonergan's film You Can Count On Me. She developed the first musical themes after reading the script. Once she established the themes, she worked with the orchestra to create a specific sound that emoted the sound of the ocean with "underlying tension"—but with lightness—for exterior shots. Barber took early inspiration from New England church music from the 1700s, including Calvinist hymns and other music of the Pilgrims and Colonial era, with its emphasis on a cappella vocals. Barber also developed the music to complement her understanding of the essence of the film's scenes based on emails and conversations with Lonergan. For example, to score scenes that reflected Lee's "interior landscape", she sent the music to her daughter Jacoba Barber Rozema (an opera major), and then recorded her singing in her dorm room via Skype. Barber said the more confined space made for a "perfect sound." Orchestration was added to the track later. For the opening flash-back of Lee in happier times, Barber recorded her daughter's vocals in a large, spacious auditorium. Instead of giving Lonergan demos, Barber provided him with more finished pieces earlier into the editing process to allow the director to have a better sense of the music while editing. The film was cut down after the Sundance screening, requiring Barber to rework and simplify some of the music.
Critic Steven Mears says the film's score "gives form" to the feelings of blue-collar Americans. Bobby Finger with Jezabel called it "an elegant white noise...a hypnotic soundtrack to focused thought." Caitlin Warren of Spindle Magazine said the score perfectly adds "to the raw emotion of the film without ever overwhelming it to the point of feeling contrived or cheesy." Film score critic Jonathan Broxton said the music "dwells in the bitterness of regret" and that it has "a captivating, dream-like quality that is...dramatically appropriate for the film it accompanies."
The use of "Adagio in G minor" to accompany the reveal of Lee's tragedy got mixed reviews. The New Yorker said that "any piece of music that has been used for Rollerball, Gallipoli, and Flashdance has, by definition, been squeezed dry." Mark Kermode of the BBC said that the piece "has been overused so much in pop entertainment that when it turns up, it's distracting." On the other hand, Koresky noted that in the montage, "Lonergan thickly lays on the Handel, Bach, and Albinoni, making this sequence almost surreally operatic in its horror." In an interview, Lonergan said he originally used the piece as a stand-in track while editing, but ultimately decided to keep it in. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences ruled the film's score ineligible for Oscar consideration due to the volume of music from classical composers on the soundtrack. In a statement Barber released to Variety, she said, "While I accept the Academy’s decision, I also support my director's decision to use these pieces and I'm also very proud of the substantial contribution that the original score made to the film as well."
All music is written by Lesley Barber unless otherwise noted. The orchestra was conducted by James Shearman. Jacoba Barber-Rozema, Barber's daughter, provided special vocals. The album was recorded and mixed by XXX, and edited by Mick Gormley. The album produced by Barber and Stefan Karrer.