Lee (Casey Affleck) is a lonely janitor and repair man, spending his days un-clogging toilets, trying to fix leaks that won't quit, and shoveling endless piles of snow (cue the baggage metaphors). After the sudden death of his brother (Kyle Chandler), he reluctantly inherits custody of his teenage nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). The narrative follows them as they cope with the haunts, burdens, and messy aftermath of a tragedy, all while they straighten out their lives going forward.
Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count On Me) pens an excellent script, full of blunt and snappy dialogue, all-too-real human conflicts, and genuinely affecting emotion. The multiple flashbacks enrich the story and give the characters depth, while adding a heart-wrenching undercurrent of unspeakable tragedy. It's sad stuff indeed. But even amidst the somber circumstances, the film doesn't forget its sense of humor. This thing is actually really funny. You'll laugh in between the tears. It's fully dimensional. Just like life. Lee and Patrick's relationship isn't of the blatant warm and fuzzy Hallmark variety. It's awkward, pugnacious, and full of ribbing. But they're cool with each other, and we know they care deep down. They're both in the same boat (pun definitely intended).
Casey Affleck gives a seriously tremendous performance. Lee isn't the most likable character, but we still sympathize with him. It's as if his distressing numbness, self-resentment, and repressed feelings have all transferred to his hunched shoulders and the darkness beneath his eyes. It's quietly devastating and nuanced, and Affleck nails it. Award nominations are certainly on the way. Michelle Williams is also stunning with her supporting role as Lee's estranged ex-wife Randi. She's only in a few scenes, but they're crucial scenes that leave a weighty impact. Newcomer Lucas Hedges is impressive too, seeming like an authentic high schooler dude who's going through some stuff. In fact, the entire cast is top-notch here, as you'd expect from one of this year's Oscar frontrunners.
There is a slight shred of uplift in the end, but it's still the type of story that'll make you want to go off and have a good cry in the movie theater parking lot afterwards. Manchester By the Sea is a film that hits hard no matter what, but it's especially poignant if you've ever lost someone close to you.
It's one of 2016's very best.
* 10/10 *
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