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Kenneth Lonergan makes a masterpiece in Manchester by the Sea

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Whatever you do, don't be put off by the slightly pretentious-sounding film title. Manchester by the Sea is not The Flower That Drank the Moon (a fictional movie inside the movie Ghost World, so-named to make fun of sentimental filmgoers). In fact, Manchester-by-the-Sea is a real place in Massachusetts, and the film that's named after it will astound you and break your heart in ways you won't see coming. But it's funny somehow, too!

Casey Affleck stars as Lee Chandler, a brooding janitor in Boston. From his interactions with clients, we learn that he is efficient, gruff, lonely and not interested in changing. Life changes for him anyway when his brother becomes sick and dies, leaving behind a 16-year-old son and a commercial fishing vessel, among other things.

Kenneth Lonergan writes and directs the picture, and his previous work has never failed to both thrill and upset me. His directorial debut, You Can Count on Me (2000), won him a best screenplay Oscar nomination and helped launch the careers of Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo, and it was followed not so swiftly by 2011's cult favorite Margaret. Both films excel at showing ordinary lives altered by twists of fate both tragic and ordinary. Lonergan has a particular talent for laying people bare and showing how they work. You see yourself in his characters, and you want to help put them back together again. You get the feeling that Lonergan could take any life—he could take your life—put it on screen and make it feel special.

Casey Affleck stars in Manchester by the Sea.
  • Casey Affleck stars in Manchester by the Sea.

With Manchester by the Sea's Lee Chandler, we can tell that he's moody but we don't know why. Slowly, methodically, through one engrossing scene after another, the story begins to uncover the circumstances that have led him to this moment. We learn that he was married to a formidable woman (Michelle Williams) and that they had a family together in Manchester. Chandler's brother had a wife, a son and a degenerative heart condition. And we learn through a series of flashbacks how it all fell apart for everyone, and how some of them have put the pieces back together better than others.

This is a pretty unlucky family, but it's not too far off from the kind of loss most of us have experienced, or one day will. My best friend died last year and my dog died a week ago and I feel like I'll never get over any of it. I just walk around riddled with bullets, trying to hold my guts in, the same as everybody else. But I don't know what it's like to be a teenage boy who loses a father, or a parent who's lost a child. That's what movies like these are for—to help us see ourselves, and to help us understand and grieve for one another.

Affleck has never given a bad performance, and this may be his best, in a film where all of the actors pull their weight. Most of all, I'm impressed with the screenplay. The story weaves in and out of the past and the present with the complexity of a novel. Just when you think you know what direction the story's headed—you're wrong. I am Lonergan's Annie-Wilkes-in-Misery-level #1 fan, and I think Manchester by the Sea is his masterpiece.

Manchester by the Sea opens at the Roxy Fri., Dec. 16.

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The original print version of this article was headlined "No ordinary people"

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