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Manchester by the Sea is a beautiful tragedy, and Casey Affleck's finest role

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Eleven months after its Sundance premiere, Manchester by the Sea has opened in limited release. In hindsight, the drama is not just one of the best films from Sundance 2016; it's one of the best films of the year. This review was originally published on January 25th, 2016.

Secondary drowning is a grim death. Following a near drowning incident, the liquid remaining in the lungs of a victim can trigger the inward extrusion of bodily floods. Hours or even days after escaping the water, the body begins to drown in its own liquids.

Manchester by the Sea, the highly anticipated drama from writer / director Kenneth Lonergan, tells the story of a man experiencing the emotional equivalent of secondary drowning. The film is set up to be every bit as agonizing as that would suggest, but with its cathartic score and Lonergan’s habit of underplaying his most dramatic moments, what could be an excruciating journey has a disarming grace. Received with almost unanimous praise, it has been acquired by Amazon and should appear in theaters sometime this year.

Lee (Casey Affleck) is a loaf by night, janitor by day in Boston, spending his free time fighting in bars and ignoring would-be suitors. The passing of his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) breaks Lee from the cycle, bringing him home to the town of the title, where he’s burdened with unexpected guardianship of his teenage nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Lee had escaped a past life in the town which nearly destroyed him; returning to the epicenter of his trauma has fatal potential.

'Manchester by the Sea' is about living in the wake of tragedy

On first blush, this is a quintessential indie tale of a stunted man maturing in tandem with a bereaved child. But Lonergan deftly subverts expectations. Whenever the story starts to settle, the auteur tosses another stone through the plot’s surface, newly revealed information rippling outwards, changing how we perceive the characters and their motives.

After his father’s funeral, Patrick swiftly enters recovery mode, rehearsing with his band, repairing the family boat, and trying to finally get past second base with one of his two girlfriends. Hedges’ Patrick is sad but not defeated, somber but funny. In a cast that includes a roster of Oscar-worthy talent, Hedges (who is still studying acting as a freshman in college) holds his own with an atypical humility.

But Manchester by the Sea is Lee’s story, and Affleck’s showpiece. Lee’s arc — finding his place in the town and his family — is small, but potent. As the film pushes forward, flashbacks trickle in, and we learn of Affleck’s once domestic bliss with his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams, who devastates with her minimal scene time), and the nauseating tragedy that obliterated it.

An operatic score mercifully covers the rawest scenes

The town and its residents are tragic residue, and like liquid in the lungs, they turn Lee against himself, threatening a fatal outcome. Manchester by the Sea is a quiet and slow town, but for Lee, cross looks and cruel gossip hide in the shadows. Affleck pulls from 1,000 shades of grief, each spliced with a counter emotion, bringing precision to a film that could have thudded along as a humorless, repetitive barrage of self-pity. The movie is compelling for those of us not like Patrick, who may never recover but can train ourselves to put on our boots and step outside.

Lesley Barber’s operatic score supports the cast’s performances, mercifully turning up the soundtrack dial to cover a couple excruciating scenes that would otherwise play out as a cacophony of bloodcurdling, scenery-chewing screams.

Manchester by the Sea could be dismissed as a "difficult film," but that would undersell how unexpectedly inspiring it is. It’s a methodic meditation on living with pain that can’t be shed, and in the oily-black corners of our shared fears, Lonergan has discovered something beautiful, human, and new. By good fortune, he’s shared it with us.