Lee Chandler, who works as a janitor and lives alone in a basement apartment in Quincy, Massachusetts, is told his brother Joe, a fisherman, has suffered a cardiac arrest; Joe dies before Lee can get to the hospital. Lee insists on being the one to tell Joe’s teenage son Patrick about his father’s death. While making funeral arrangements, they learn Joe’s body cannot be buried until spring when the ground thaws.
Lee makes plans to remain in Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts, in Patrick’s home, until the delayed burial. Lee meets with Joe’s attorney and is shocked to discover Joe named him as Patrick’s legal guardian. A flashback reveals that Lee had once lived in Manchester with his then-wife Randi and their three small children. While drunk one night, Lee forgot to put the guard in front of the fire, leading to a house fire that killed the children.
No criminal charges were filed against him, with the police considering it a tragic accident. However, after being questioned at the police station, a guilt-ridden Lee steals an officer’s gun and attempts to shoot himself. He and his wife divorced and Lee left the town. In light of these events, Lee is reluctant to commit to the guardianship and is unwilling to move back to Manchester, the site of his children’s death.
Lee begins planning for Patrick to move to Boston with him but Patrick has strong links with the Manchester community and objects to the idea. Lee commits to staying until the end of the school year. Over time, Patrick and Lee re-establish their bond, despite conflicts about Joe’s boat, Patrick’s girlfriends, and their future living arrangements.
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