By Mark Saldana

Rating: 4 (Out of 4 Stars)

In life, people have their crosses to bear.  For some, the burdens and pain from their past add such a tremendous weight that they simply cannot handle any more responsibilities in their lives, including the responsibilities and demands that come from family and attachments.  Such is the life of character Lee Chandler in Manchester by the Sea.  Writer/director Kenneth Lonnergan’s new film presents a beautiful, but heartbreaking and sometimes, agonizing portrait of a man destroyed by some of life’s toughest blows.

Casey Affleck stars as Lee, a quiet, antisocial apartment janitor/maintenance worker living alone.  When he gets word that his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has died, he must summon up the courage to return home, not only to deal with the loss of his beloved brother, but also to face the demons of his past that drove him away from home.  In addition to all of the usual procedures that come with burying a family member and remembering his past, Lee must also assume guardianship of his seventeen year-old nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) and handle the responsibilities that come with caring for a teenager.

I do not think I have ever cried so much in a movie as I did with Manchester by the Sea.  Kenneth Lonergan does an outstanding job presenting this story of pain and suffering in a tremendously and sometimes, brutally realistic way.  Lonergan’s development of his characters and scenarios feel true-to-life and natural.  Lonergan offers a different take on grief and torment in a way few filmmakers dare to attempt.  Lee Chandler is a man completely and utterly devastated beyond repair and Lonergan’s story offers his protagonist little hope for recovery.  I know the whole thing sounds totally depressing and not entertaining at all; however, the writer/director does manage to wonderfully include the humor that often occurs when raising and caring for a teenage boy.  These moments range from mildly amusing to absolutely hilarious.  This helps lighten the load while watching the film.  Lonergan’s excellent writing and superb direction allow the amazing cast to deliver some equally extraordinary performances.

The film features great work by Kyle Chandler, C.J. Wilson, and Gretchen Mol.  Michelle Williams definitely makes a wonderful and heartrending impact with her turn as Lee Chandler’s ex-wife Randi.  She shares one particular scene with Casey Affleck that totally crushed me.  Young actor Lucas Heges offers a stunning performance as Lee’s nephew Patrick, Joe’s teen son who doesn’t know quite how to handle his father’s death.  As one can already probably tell, Casey Affleck offers what might be the best performance by an actor this year.  I have always enjoyed his work in other films, but I have never seen the talented actor more transformed or more humanly vulnerable by the material in any of his previous movies. This is an achievement in acting that deserves all the praise and accolades it is already receiving.

As for the film as a whole, Manchester by the Sea is clearly, without a doubt, one of the best films of the year.  Kenneth Lonergan also deserves high praise and recognition for making a film that tackles a difficult and painful subject and handles it with skill, artistry, and poignancy.  This is Lonergan’s third film as a director (after You Can Count on Me and Margaret), but this movie makes him look like a veteran filmmaker who has created his swan song masterpiece.  Hopefully, that is not true, though, because I would love to see more work from this truly talented artist.  If this movie continues receiving the recognition it deserves, that shouldn’t be a problem.

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