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Manchester by the Sea (2016)

Drama Rated R

As a portrait of a man who deals with grief by submerging it into the marrow of his bones, Manchester by the Sea paints an all-too-familiar emotional landscape for me to render any sort of clear-headed response. There were moments while watching it that I felt as helpless as a subject sitting for an unwanted portrait. So if you’re at all skeptical of praise for a movie because it resonates closely with a critic’s personal experience, take the following with a grain of salt. Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count on Me, Margaret), Manchester by the Sea stars Casey Affleck as Lee Chandler, a Boston handyman who is called back to his hometown after a death in his family, forcing him to readdress an earlier tragedy that had taken place there years before. Affleck, long one of my favorite understated actors, gives a career performance, capturing Lee’s impenetrable insularity without alienating the audience. Lucas Hedges, as Lee’s nephew Patrick, who is emotionally wired the same way, has a similar, unforced naturalism, while Michelle Williams is her usual solid self in a few crucial scenes. Lonergan’s strengths are as a director of actors and a screenwriter (the use of flashbacks here is precise and elegant), yet he also makes Manchester by the Sea a compelling visual experience. Each image is carefully composed without being overly fussy, while the wintry New England makes for an evocative backdrop. This isn’t a movie in which anyone’s heart is really warmed; the best we can hope for is a bit of a thaw.