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'Manchester by the Sea': Set your Movie GPS
By Michael S. Goldberger, iBerkshires Film Critic
02:41PM / Wednesday, December 21, 2016
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Casey Affleck plays an uncle with a mystery past who comes home to be guardian to his nephew.

For those filmgoers who long for a movie with a beginning, middle and end, bereft of razzle-dazzle special effects and philosophy class mind benders, writer-director Kenneth Lonergan's soulfully touching "Manchester by the Sea" is just the ticket. But beware oh ye to whom such traditional fair initially appeals, as the astutely filmed story about an uncle made the guardian of a teenage boy after the kid's father dies ultimately asks just how much reality are you willing to take?

While to a degree you may escape into the fine artistry of the saga, its authenticity poignantly and regularly, to coin a phrase, harks back to the human drama in which we are all cast members. Thus, per the tacit agreement we probably made when Oog put on his first pantomime back in the cave, for the moment we will be transported sympathizers … oohing, ahhing, comparing and most probably shedding a tear or two for our thespic surrogate's troubles.

Harsh truths and issues that demand decisions befall Casey Affleck's Lee Chandler, the uncle in question, and if they don't recall some of your own worries, you're either missing some chromosomes or you've led a charmed life. However, near storybook visuals soften the blows without forsaking genuineness as filmmaker Lonergan romantically turns his eponymous, Manchester-by-the-Sea location into a cinema version of the three walls. In these gossipy confines, everyone knows everyone and their business, and they all know about Lee.

We don't know him at all. For in essence, as the newest challenges to his very being are faced, the unraveling of his mini-biography stands as the movie's primary emphasis. Suffice it to note without giving away the store, he is a character study in survival: part hero, part Job, and part perceived villain. But most of all he exudes that part which makes every person as different as they are similar. Hence, once we get wind that there may be a shrouded mystery about Lee that obviously clouds his return to the picturesque hamlet on Cape Anne, we are beset with curiosity.

We instinctively like him, but don't quite know why, mostly thanks to a highly sensitive performance by Casey Affleck. In fact, as the script gets closer to divulging what everyone but us knows, we fear it may be something so morally indefensible that surely it must change our minds. This dynamic, blended with the latest quandary at hand, is part and parcel of a very good piece of storytelling, but with an old twist that directors are currently giving a renaissance. While yes, there's that traditional beginning, middle and end as promised, it's not always told in that order.

An intermeshing of various, different periods of Lee's life, while always returning to the present, smartly serves the exposition, engagingly builds the lore, and, daring to be existential, emphasizes the entire time continuum panorama that comprises our existence. It is this overall gist mixed with the minutiae of everyday life and the expectations that attend it, that exemplify "Manchester by the Sea's" Rembrandtesque mirror of our accomplishments, follies, dreams and disappointments. It's the truth, as much as we dare discern it, burnished with the seriocomic.

This naturalistic style proves keenly arresting when Lee, who has been holed up as a janitor in a mediocre apartment complex in Quincy, drives north after learning that his brother's health has taken a turn for the worse. The traffic is horrible, and we anguish along with Lee as each red light, construction jam or lollygagging driver plays metaphor to the unavoidable gloominess that awaits him at the hospital. When he arrives and huddles in the hallway with an old friend, a nurse and the doctor, the spotlight is on the unanswerable questions that rush to us in such times.

Indeed, it all gets pretty grim, especially when MLonergan's stellar script digs under the barely concealing rocks to unearth the unmentionably dark tale … the cause célèbre not breathed, but communicated in furrowed brows and saddened eyes. Whew is right! But don't despair, dear reader, for what would the human pageant be without a little paean to our resilience? It arrives here in the person of Patrick, the suddenly fatherless teenager splendidly portrayed by Lucas Hedges.

The witty interplay between Patrick and the prodigal uncle as the latter struggles with the responsibility foisted upon him provides comedy relief, a whimsically tolerant look at the generation gap, and hints at just enough hope to keep us rooting for all those concerned. Playing counterpoint to the Sturm und Drang, the scenery is a quietly beautiful evoker of mood and place. Add the main subplot, which brings into focus Lee's relationship with his ex-wife, Randi, startlingly etched by Michelle Williams, and it makes "Manchester by the Sea" quite the dramatic destination.

"Manchester by the Sea," rated R, is a Roadside Attractions release directed by Kenneth Lonergan and stars Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges and Michelle Williams. Running time: 137 minutes

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