Manchester by the Sea ★★★★★

After reading a plot synopsis for Manchester by the Sea, I found it hard to muster up any sort of enthusiasm toward it, because at the time, I felt I knew which direction that particular story was going to go. These types of dramas are usually life-affirming, reassuring, and expressly designed for awards season — chronicling how miserable people are thrown into wacky circumstances (usually involving a will) which unexpectedly helps them overcome their grief-ridden past. So judging by that template, Manchester’s trajectory seemed obvious and inevitable. And then I saw it, and it not only defied my expectations, but became my favorite film of the year.

Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan showed a great deal of promise in his first two films You Can Count on Me and Margaret, but Manchester by the Sea is without a doubt his best film so far. It’s a specific, yet universal portrait of a family recuperating after the loss of a loved one, and a thoroughly engaging character study of a man haunted by (and forced to confront) the demons of his past. Casey Affleck turns in a brilliant, magnificently restrained performance, conveying more with posture, facial tics, and small gestures than actual dialogue. Newcomer Lucas Hedges does a great job as the wisecracking teenage nephew, but in terms of supporting roles, it’s Michelle Williams who steals the show with a truly astonishing performance, despite her limited time onscreen.

The film is set to the rhythms of everyday life, and captures the struggles of the American working class with remarkable authenticity. It's firmly anchored in its setting, not only through the vivid, specific sense of place, but also through its exploration of the tight-knit community at hand. Lonergan understands that there’s a very thin line between what is tragic and comic, and is honest enough to portray how sometimes, they're intertwined. The film is impeccably detailed, and filled with small moments that ring true to real life. Whether it’s forgetting where you parked your car, a sick day spent in bed surrounded by tissues, or a cell phone going off in a funeral—it’s human moments like these that completely ground Manchester by the Sea in reality. The film is alternately funny and heartbreaking, and it’s a kitchen-sink masterpiece that will stick with you long after the credits roll.

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