SUNDANCE: Gorgeous ‘Manchester by the Sea’ is a shattering masterwork


PARK CITY, Utah | No one shows the landscape of human grief and trauma quite like Kenneth Lonergan.

It sometimes seems like the playwright turned director of both “You Can Count On Me” and “Margaret” knows us better than we know ourselves. His movies look and feel like life — it’s no wonder our souls can only handle one every few years.

“Manchester by the Sea,” his third feature which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on Saturday to a massive standing ovation, is truly a masterpiece.

In its simplest form, “Manchester by the Sea” is about family, tragedy and aftermath. Casey Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a custodian in Boston for some scummy apartment buildings. He lives alone in an unadorned room. He fixes toilets as silently and as stoically as one can. He turns down frequent advances with a simple “that’s all right.” And he gets into bar fights of his own making.

Then his brother (played by Kyle Chandler) dies and he must return to his hometown to take care of his teenage nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), forcing him to explore the reasons he had to leave years ago.

There is no easy way to sum up what the film is about. Part of its impact is how Lonergan allows the story to reveal itself to the audience as he elegantly weaves together past and present, building tension to a devastating crescendo midway through. To even describe who the other actors play would be too much, but, suffice it to say that both Michelle Williams and Gretchen Mol are pivotal.

And while it might be a drama to its core, it is neither dreary nor self-indulgent. It’s also packed with wit and humor as well.

“It’s about the relationship between very sad, terrible losses and the connections to other people that make them painful and can also get you through them — or at least keep you afloat,” Lonergan said prior to the Festival. “You have a very damaged man and a very good-natured, cheerful, energetic, determined kid who are thrown together in a town where one doesn’t want to be and the other doesn’t want to leave.”

After the film premiered, Affleck told a sobbing audience that the experience has made him a better actor.

Hedges, who had a small role in “Moonrise Kingdom” said, too, that the raw emotion of so many of the scenes are “often more fulfilling and therapeutic than destructive.”

The script has been in the works for years. Matt Damon, who produced, said that he and John Krasinski had come to Lonergan with an idea years ago. First Damon was to direct with Krasinski starring, then Damon was going to star with Lonergan directing. But Damon’s schedule was just too full.

“I didn’t want to get in the way of a great movie being way,” Damon said. “I said to Kenny I don’t want to give this role up to anybody but Casey Affleck.”

Damon and Affleck had done a play with Lonergan in London over a decade ago, and Damon was also in “Margaret.”

While it is comically early in 2016, it’s hard to imagine that “Manchester by the Sea” won’t be considered one of the year’s best, if not the absolute best, by this time next year.

“People find ways to live with real tragedy, but some people don’t,” Lonergan said. “I thought maybe they deserve to have a movie made about them too.”

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