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After debuting on Saturday night, Manchester by the Sea quickly became the buzziest film at Sundance. When Amazon made an unprecedented $10 million dollar deal to sweep up distributing rights, the echo chamber only got louder. On the one hand, writer/director Kenneth Lonergan must welcome the fat paycheck with open arms. And yet, such a lofty price tag sets a certain sky-high expectation for the film before its even had a chance to digest in anyone’s tummies or see the light of day for most viewers. All finances aside, Manchester by the Sea is a emotionally resonant tearjerker/masterful character study with Casey Affleck stepping up to the plate to claim some majorly overdue attention.

On the surface, Manchester by the Sea shares a lot of similarities to other Sundance features, which at first glance make this spendy acquisition a touch questionable. Like some of its competitive compatriots, Manchester tells the story of a man who returns home to care for his family when illness strikes. A more Sundancey trope there may not be but what Manchester has over indies of its ilk is a crisp, potent combination of screenwriting prowess, directorial wisdom and an absolutely knockout central turn for star Casey Affleck.

Lonergan unwraps details at his pace, piecing together the time-jumping narrative with precision and manufacturing what we do and do not know from the get go with a great sense of care. He adopts a tendency to cut scenes short, often to well-timed comedic effect, or let them linger to horribly awkward lengths. Longergan knows that it’s usually the moments between big moments that define who we are and he’s always present for the afterglow when it serves character development. The handiwork is subtle but skillful; the craft of someone in fierce command of tone.

Affleck is Lee Chandler, an alienated custodian with a grim past, who gets a phone call that his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has suffered a severe cardiac incident. Before he can schlep the 90 minutes from Boston to Manchester, Joe has passed away, leaving son Patrick (Lucas Hedges) in his wake. Knowing that his days were numbered, Joe meticulously planned for the event, entrusting his estate and his son’s guardianship to his younger brother until Patrick is old enough to care for himself.

The responsibility overwhelms Lee almost immediately, who just by virtue of being back home has found himself even more withdrawn and miserable, like an animal with its foot locked in a trap. At times, Lee wills himself to find hope but ultimately finds himself looking through the shop window at doom and gloom and forcing himself at make a purchase. Some poison is eating Lee from the inside out and, getting back to the notion that Lonergan plays his hand flawlessly, getting to the juicy, heartbreaking center can be cripplingly melancholy but overwhelming affecting. When the emotionally cathartic epiphany strikes, sniffles race across the audience like The Wave at a baseball stadium.ManchesterByTheSeaSSR2

What follows is the intimate, unflinching story of these two spiraling souls; one drying his eyes and looking forward and the other utterly unable to peel from the past. The juxtaposition between the two characters makes for incredibly tender and deeply human moments and some damn, damn fine acting. Consider Hedges a name to watch. As Patrick, he’s very much in control, balancing resilience in amongst a pathological need to detach emotionally. He’s by no means a saintly character (in hockey practice, he’s needlessly aggressive on ice; he dates multiple girls at once) but he’s real, right down to his authentic Boston accent.

The star of the show is Affleck, who is nothing short of incredible as the wounded and antisocial Lee. Thinking back on certain elements of his performance threatens to make me misty-eyed just writing about it. For years the kid brother to Ben has displayed thespian skill well beyond his sibling and from The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (for which he earned a Best Supporting Actor nomination) to Out of the Furnace (a phenomenal but totally forgotten about role), Affleck has given one noteworthy turn after another. With Manchester, he’s stepped confidently out from the shadow of Ben and into the spotlight. His quiet dolor arrests and tranquilizes. You want to reach through the screen and give him a hug but you know he’d withdraw in self-disgust. To him, he’s not worth the hug. Cue the inevitable barking of the awards watchdogs.

And all this talk seems to give perspective to Amazon’s long game. Because if one were to make a hypothesis, it’s that Amazon is playing at the Oscar game. Most specifically, they want to be the first streaming service to hear their names announced on nomination day. Even more specifically, they want to beat Netflix to the punch. Manchester By the Sea might just do it for them – it should earn Affleck his first Lead Actor nomination at the Academy Awards and, if the release is handled properly, could be Best Picture material – but, if Beasts of No Nation is any warning sign, all the critical fanfare and artful merit in the world may not be enough to erase the stigma of entertainmentia streamia.

CONCLUSION: ‘Manchester By the Sea’ is a thoughtfully rendered, grief-loaded New England character study salt-washed in bathos and poised to break hearts. Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan masterful commands the drama while Casey Affleck gives the performance of his lifetime.

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