Manchester by the Sea ★★★★½

A film observing the prisons built out of grief, "Manchester by the Sea" is a remarkable drama that weaves excellent performances with a narrative that is part elegy, part cry for recovery. Kenneth Lonergan's drama layers genuine pathos, searing and subtle passion, and natural poetry for a work that is heavy, sharp, and compellingly universal.

Starring Casey Affleck as Lee Chandler, a Boston-area maintenance man whose life seems to be defined by personal tragedy, "Manchester by the Sea" follows Chandler as he deals with the emotions and logistics tied to the death of his brother. Granted custody of his nephew, Chandler is forced to deal with his own history and a future fraught with new challenges.

The narrative engages with quiet storms of emotion that move from silent to explosive. It is human, real, and sad, though delivered with thoughtful, cinematic grace. That grace examines, with knowing eyes, the manner by which women and men interact with tragedy and how recovery from great loss is undertaken. It is a powerful and empathetic study of the destruction wrought, the walls built, and the transformation caused by the bleak, all-encompassing, and sometimes hopeless sting of enveloping pain. Thankfully, the narrative glances forward toward recovery as it turns its eyes from an inner and outer sadness.

Lonergan builds a film that unfolds as character study communicated in plot-driven, history-imbued rhythms. He allows his audience to view his characters through personal lenses, leaving all judgement to those viewing the work. The different methods by which human beings come to grips with personal darkness, be it through tears, violence, sex, drink, or God, play out against a sea-swept coastal winter whose chill reflects the film's inner emotion. Cinematography and structure create a literary and naturally artful landscape upon which the drama moves and to which it attaches itself.

Performances, painting the film's shades of grief, are, again, excellent. Affleck, Lucas Hedges, and Michelle Williams each create distinctive portraits of distinctive loss, offering robust and pointed reflections of the film's emotional shades.

"Manchester by the Sea," with its expected melancholy and emotional weight, is, ultimately, hopeful. A potent, artful, and accessible look at loss and rebuilding, the film may be driven by the sadness of its characters, but Lonergan and his company of actors and artists are wise enough to draw the real humanity out of the work; and that humanity is one that encompasses growth, acceptance, and empowered progress toward healing.

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