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That’s Manchester, Massachusetts, a small fishing community that’s the setting for this devastating tale of buried trauma from American director and playwright Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count on Me). Casey Affleck gives a complex, brooding central performance as Lee, a Boston handyman and caretaker – for all his quiet capability with a blocked toilet, you wouldn’t want to cross him. Affleck burns the screen in the early scenes, building up a portrait of a solitary existence: this is a man who is long past giving a shit about anything.
Why? That remains a mystery – for now. While you sense that Lee is the kind of person who doesn’t need more bad news, it arrives in the form of a call telling him that a heart attack has killed his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler, superb in flashbacks). As Lee drives up to the wintry town of his youth to make funeral arrangements, we begin to see what makes him ache. Once in Manchester, he learns that he’s been made the legal guardian of Joe’s son, seen in happier days fishing off the back off the family’s boat. Today, Patrick (Lucas Hedges) is a typical gobby teenager, juggling two girlfriends, a pissed-off hockey coach and a rock band.
But Lonergan’s film isn’t about rebounding as much as coping. That’s what makes Manchester by the Sea so dark and courageous; it says that, for some people, there won’t be any moving on from grief. These sad people will walk into another day, perhaps with more openness and a nephew to bear the burden. For that honesty alone, almost unbearable yet expressed with rare poise, this movie is a profound, meaningful gift.
By Joshua Rothkopf