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The magnificent ‘Manchester by the Sea’

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There are plenty of ways in which a movie can be great. It can feature a great aesthetic or offer great performances or tell a great story. It can be funny or sad or emotionally charged or simply beautiful. It can transport you while you’re watching and leave you thinking while it follows you home. Any one of these qualities can make for a great movie, but it’s a rare film that can do most or all of these things.

“Manchester by the Sea” is just such a rare film. Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, it tells the story of a man whose past and present collide in a mess of tragedies both current and remembered, a man who long ago told himself that he was incapable of true responsibility and unworthy of love.

Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck, “Triple 9”) is a janitor in charge of four apartment buildings in Quincy, working for minimum wage plus a room. He lives a sad and solitary existence, with his primary interpersonal interactions consisting of fixing the problems of tenants and picking fights in local bars.

When Lee’s brother Joe (Kyle Chandler, “Carol”) dies, Lee drops everything to make his way back to Manchester to help get his brother’s affairs in order. When he does so, he receives a shocking bit of news – Joe has declared Lee to be his choice for guardianship of Joe’s 16-year-old son Patrick (Lucas Hedges, TV’s “The Slap”).

And so Lee leaves behind his job to move to Manchester and help with his nephew. But memories can be long in small towns – particularly when there are dark shadows in the past. Lee is forced to confront not only his struggles to connect with Patrick, but also with tragedies gone by – including the sad circumstances that led to the end of his marriage to his wife Randi (Michelle Williams, “Certain Women”).

Patrick is a teenager doing teenager things; Lee stumbles as he tries to determine just how to be the parental figure the boy needs – and whether he’s capable of being a parent at all.

With frequent flashbacks to turning points in the past, Lee shuffles down this new path with downcast eyes, fueled by loyalty and shame and a love he’s unable to express or explain. There are a lot of ghosts in this town and out on the water – ghosts that have chased Lee for years – and there’s no escaping them now. Memories have weight in Manchester, a weight under which Lee tries desperately to hold up.

“Manchester by the Sea” is powerful stuff. No emotional punches are pulled; the blows landed on Lee land just as heavily on the audience. The world of the film is populated with complex, real people – every single character appearing on screen feels genuine. And those genuine people beget genuine relationships which beget genuine interaction; the end result is a moving story filled with powerful emotions and earned empathy. There’s lots of pathos here, but it never feels forced. And there are moments of levity as well, which serve as a nice counterbalance to the emotional turmoil.

Kenneth Lonergan hasn’t got the greatest reputation in Hollywood – it’s difficult to parse out the actual truth from stories surrounding the making of his last film (2011’s “Margaret”). Still, his undeniable talent is manifested full force with this movie; it’s a beautifully-constructed piece of work, powered by a lovely sense of clarity and a willingness to treat silence as its own kind of dialogue. It is both poignant and pointed, offering up nuanced narrative power beyond that of all but a scant handful of this year’s film offerings.

Affleck is simply exceptional here. His performance as Lee is almost shockingly great, giving the man a quietly broken quality that embodies the sort of small town stoicism that places like Manchester represent. You might sit down questioning the idea that Casey Affleck can produce an Oscar-worthy performance, but you’ll stand up questioning how they could choose anyone else. Seriously – he’s that good.

Hedges is fantastic as Patrick, plumbing the depths of the teenage psyche to give us a realistic portrayal of a young man’s grief and subsequent recovery. He is sweetly vulnerable and charmingly profane, wearing his heart (and his hurt) on his sleeve. Chandler is great in the flashbacks as Joe, warm and thoughtful with just the right touch of saltiness. Williams might be one of our most underrated film actresses; she’s outstanding here. And talented actors like Gretchen Mol and Matthew Broderick show up for a few scenes as well.

“Manchester by the Sea” is great in every way that you might want a film to be great. It is emotionally engaging, smart and tragic and sadly funny. It is beautiful to look at, packed with exquisite performances. It is raw and true and heartbreaking.

It also easily one of the best movies of the year.

[5 out of 5]

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