Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s story of sadness and loss plays like a New England tragedy

“Manchester by the Sea” deals with unbearable, almost unspeakable sadness, yet manages to find light inside the darkness. Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan fashions his New England tale as an operatic tragedy but doesn’t bog the story down with melodrama, and allows his characters to live and breathe and laugh in the face of true heartbreak.

Casey Affleck, a shoo-in for his second Oscar nomination (and first in the Best Actor category, following his supporting nod for “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”), plays Lee Chandler, a janitor living in a tiny below-ground apartment outside of Boston. He’s quiet and keeps to himself, except when he’s had a few drinks which tends to lead to fistfights at the local bar.

We slowly learn why he’s the way he is; Lonergan takes his time peeling back his layers. In the meantime, Lee is called back to his hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea after his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) dies unexpectedly and leaves Lee to care for his teenage son Patrick (newcomer Lucas Hedges in an excellent turn).

There’s the natural push and pull of Lee and Patrick’s relationship; Lee wants to bring Patrick with him to the city, while Patrick is content at home where he’s on the hockey team, in a band and juggling two girlfriends. But the old demons of his hometown are too much for Lee to bear, and being in close proximity to his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams) brings unresolved issues roaring back to the surface.

Lonergan, whose 2000 film “You Can Count On Me” is hands-down one of the best, most touching films of the last 20 years, does a wonderful balancing act managing the heaviness of the story with facets of levity and relatability. (There’s a sly nod to one of his “You Can Count on Me” characters that fans will love.) His characters have the same penchant for profanity as the gangsters in “Goodfellas,” and he has a keen sense for detail and New England. That authenticity makes his Manchester-by-the-Sea come to life.

Yet there’s a moment when Lonergan lays it on too thick, during a sequence where the score swells so loud it overwhelms everything on screen. We know the themes and the level of human catastrophe with which he’s dealing, the anvil isn’t needed. It’s a small quibble in a picture of immense power.

Affleck is as strong as he’s ever been, turning his anger and his sadness inward into a cauldron of sorrow and self-resentment. He’s often blank, stunned silent by the immeasurable grief in his soul, and Affleck buries his emotions and only lets surface feelings bubble up. It’s a textured, nuanced performance and one of the year’s finest on-screen achievements.

Williams, in a supporting role, has only a few scenes but does wonders with them; a meeting with Affleck near a sidewalk staircase could be a one-act play in and of itself. Gretchen Mol also has a tiny role as Patrick’s wayward mother that helps explain the confusion and mistrust boiling inside of him.

“Manchester by the Sea” is a story about the importance of family, in good times and bad, and how those lines are blurred in moments of deep emotional crisis. It’s painful and tragic, yet it’s cut with elements of humor and laughter. Just like life.

agraham@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2284

@grahamorama

‘Manchester by the Sea’

GRADE: A

Rated R for language

throughout and some

sexual content

Running time:

137 minutes

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