Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count on Me, Margaret) proves once again he's one of our finest dramatists with his third movie, Manchester by the Sea, an achingly graceful, heartfelt, working-class story about loss, grief, and family obligations.
At turns elegiac, absurdist, and gently satirical, Lonergan's drama is a deeply affecting chamber piece that features an outstanding performance by Casey Affleck (Gone Baby Gone, Ocean's Eleven) as a Boston janitor and apartment building super who is forced by his brother's death to return to his North Shore hometown.
If early award-season buzz is any indication, the film may earn Affleck his second Oscar nomination. (The first was for his mind-blowing turn in the 2007 Western The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.)
Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a morose, lost soul given to heavy drinking and fistfights who returns to the tiny fishing village of Manchester-by-the-Sea, Mass., to attend to the affairs of his brother, Joe, who has died in his early 40s, leaving behind a teenage son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges).
Lee's return isn't exactly a happy one: He was all but banished a few years earlier after a soul-crushing turn of events. Michelle Williams has a touching appearance as Lee's ex-wife, whose anger mellowed long ago into a melancholy, semi-bitter kind of longing.
Lonergan uses the film's first half to paint a landscape of loss that's almost overwhelming to behold. Joe, who was immensely popular in the community, is mourned by the whole town, but most intensely by Patrick and Lee.
Both guys were raised to fear the free expression of emotions as a sign of weakness, so instead of talking, instead of mourning together, they bicker and fight.
Things become even more strained when Lee learns that Joe named him as Patrick's legal guardian and left explicit instructions that Lee move back to town.
Lonergan, 54, who has two previous Oscar nominations for screenwriting for You Can Count on Me and Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York, depicts grief with great specificity and great power with judicious use of flashbacks.
Despite its heavy tone, there's nothing morose about Manchester by the Sea. True to the rhythms of real life, the film opens up periodically with moments of joy and comedy reflecting Lee and Patrick's growing friendship and their oddball Odd Couple partnership. When Patrick tries to set up his uncle with a friend's mom (Heather Burns), the two adults sit across from each other, stiff and silent as statues.
Months pass, and life gets a little easier for Lee and Patrick. But they remain enmeshed in the painful, arduous reality of their lives.
There are no Hallmark moments here, no easy resolutions or magical reconciliations.
Manchester by the Sea attains true greatness as drama because it cleaves so stubbornly and so faithfully to reality. And in the real world, the deep trauma and the lingering grief experienced by Lee and Patrick don't just disappear. They are not overcome or beaten. They are simply borne. What Loneregan's film suggests is how one can bear them with a measure of grace.