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MANCHESTER BY THE SEA: 4 ½ STARS. “one of the year’s best films.”

screen-shot-2016-11-24-at-7-31-24-am“Manchester by the Sea” is one of the year’s best films. If you want to know why, read on. If not, go buy a ticket now. You won’t be disappointed.

Casey Affleck, in what is sure to be an Oscar nominated performance, is Lee Chandler, a Boston janitor with the hollow-eyed look of a man whose life has been touched by tragedy. As a maintenance man in an apartment block he spends the day with odd jobs, unplugging toilets and doing illegal electrical work. At night he picks bar fights. When his brother older Joe (Kyle Chandler) dies suddenly of a heart attack, Lee must return home to Manchester, Massachusetts and settle the estate. Haunted by ghosts of his past, Lee’s hometown brings back difficult memories. His pregnant ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams) appears to have stated her life anew and the tragedy that scarred him reverberates through the place and its people. When he finds out Joe named him guardian of Patrick (Lucas Hedges), a headstrong teen with a way with a joke and the local girls, the life he has tried so desperately to numb becomes complicated further.

“Manchester by the Sea” is many things. As a finely acted look at grief and the aftermath of heartbreak, it has few peers among this year’s crop of films. But it’s also very a funny odd couple/buddy flick that isn’t afraid to flip flop between drama and comedy. This is writer/director Kenneth Lonergan’s tempest in a teapot, a smallish film that roils with big emotional moments.

Affleck is the core of the film. He’s in virtually every frame and while understated he bristles with feeling. It is a tremendous performance that never fails into morbidity as he skilfully keeps he character alive, both physically and metaphysically. Every day is a struggle for Lee and he deals with his trauma the only way he knows how, with blistering honesty and by drinking and fighting to feel something. There is emotional truth in every mumbled line and come Oscar season expect to hear a lot about this performance.

Affleck shares several scenes with Michelle Williams, but one in particular stands out. For most of the film we only see her in flashbacks, when she was married to Lee. Cut to present day and a chance encounter on the street. In a master class of acting the two rehash and come to grips with the trauma that tore them apart. It heartbreak laid bare and it is a stunning scene.

Also strong and crucial to the film’s dynamic is Lucas Hedges as Joe’s son, Lee’s nephew. He’s a chip off the Chandler block, raw, rough and honest to a fault (except when it comes to the girls he dates). It’s a remarkably mature performance that never loses sight that Patrick is an inexperienced minor with much to learn.

I fear I’ve made “Manchester by the Sea” by the sea sound like an exercise in Sturm und Drang but it’s not. It deals with very real, very difficult human situations but does so with honesty and a great deal of unexpected humour and wisdom.

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