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Manchester By the Sea

Year: 2016
Studio: Amazon Studios
Director: Kenneth Lonergan
Writer: Kenneth Lonergan
Cast: Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, Kyle Chandler, Michelle Williams, Gretchen Mol

The most recent review I wrote before this one was the irascibly unfunny Keeping Up With The Jonses, and I made a point that because the story was so familiar, all it had to rely on to be a good movie was the performances and the characters (at which it failed dismally).

So it's interesting to now write about a movie that has a similar lack of onscreen flair, which also has nothing to rely on besides performance and character and for the result to be so startling and impactful.

The first trump card is Casey Affleck, who (despite the Roman Polanski/Woody Allen sheen he attracted around the time of the release because of sexual harassment allegations) is one of the best actors on screen today.

The second is Michelle Williams. She's hardly in it at all, but as with other movies like Take This Waltz and Blue Valentine, she's utterly captivating. The pivotal scene she and Affleck share will break your heart.

You might think the premise itself is a little bit on the melodramatic side when you first hear it – in fact in another movie it could be the basis for a stupid studio comedy – but Boston handyman and loner Lee (Affleck) is given guardianship of his teenage nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) after the sudden death of his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler).

But that's only the slim backbone against which some very real people go about their lives. Like Dennis Lehane, Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan loves these blue collar, salt of the Earth Bostoners who have little truck with talking about their feelings, but Manchester By The Sea puts them through some incredibly painful circumstances and then gives some of the best actors of our generation the means to convey them through tiny tics, gestures, mumbles and barely restrained tears.

There's been some devastating crisis in Lee's life which explains his break-up from Randi (Williams), and we meet him living far away from his titular home town where he had rough and tumble but loving relationships with his brother and nephew.

The movie jumps back and forth in time to show the contrast between Lee's old and new lives and takes its time telling us what drove him away (and even then it's not really a crucial moment in the film, just foil for what happens after). It could also be the atypical Hollywood story about how the love of his nephew warms his icy heart, but the script, the structure and the actors are all too good to let it descend into such ham-fistedness.

And even though Patrick coming into his life is the device that mostly moves the story forward, it's not really the point as such – in fact there's no single subplot that commands enough attention to telegraph it's what the movie is about. Lee's relationships with his nephew, he and his ex wife's feelings about each other, his history with his family and everything else around him are simply a tapestry to convey a very effective portrait of how these people hurt and how they respond to it.

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