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Michelle Williams and Casey Affleck work through their grief in Manchester by the Sea.

Kenneth Lonergan burst onto the scene 16 years ago with his debut film You Can Count on Me, a low-key, sharply observed dramedy that won a haul of prizes on the awards circuit and two Oscar nominations. (That movie also gave us Mark Ruffalo’s career, so there’s that.) However, his next film wound up derailing him, as his operatic post-9/11 Manhattan drama Margaret became entangled in a legal brawl as epic as the movie itself, which didn’t see a paying audience until five years after it was shot. Manchester by the Sea, which expands into Tarrant County theaters this week, is only Lonergan’s third film, and it shows him getting back to his roots, centering his drama on a single family and finding great depths and potent drama there.

Casey Affleck portrays Lee Chandler, a janitor at an apartment complex in Quincy, Mass. A morose and lonely man, he spends his free time hanging out in bars looking for guys to punch in the face. That’s his life until he gets a call from his hometown upstate in Manchester, informing him that his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has succumbed to the heart condition that has plagued him for years. The surprise isn’t Joe’s death but Lee’s discovery that Joe named him as legal guardian to his 16-year-old nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges), a high-school hockey player who seems to have inherited the family temper. Lee’s dead set against taking on the responsibility, mostly because it would mean him moving back to Manchester.

This present-day story is interpolated with flashbacks showing Lee as a kinder, fun-loving if irresponsible man in the past, married to Randi (Michelle Williams) and a doting father to three kids. The flashbacks and the main story come together in a long, agonizing scene at a police station midway through the film, which reveals why Lee hates himself so much, and why the people of Manchester fall silent whenever he’s around. Lee is a man bearing unbearable pain, and Affleck plumbs tragic depths that you’d never suspect from this actor as a guy who’s haunted by a single evening that tore his life and family asunder.

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This is heavy stuff, and Lonergan is savvy enough to cut this with comedy and small talk to make the whole thing digestible. A gathering of Patrick’s friends after his dad’s death turns into a spirited discussion about the cultural influence of Star Trek, and a tense argument between Patrick and Lee outside a funeral home over the disposal of Joe’s body detours into a “Where did I park the car?” routine. The details and scenes that spin off the main plot also add depth and richness to the story, like Lee’s attempts to fend off the flirtations of a single mom (Heather Burns) or an awkward reunion between Patrick and his estranged mother (Gretchen Mol), a recovering alcoholic who has found God and a God-fearing fiancé (Matthew Broderick). Lonergan cut his teeth in the theater, and while he retains his playwright’s focus on the writing and acting elements of film, he’s skilled enough as a cinematic storyteller that this leisurely paced 137-minute movie does not drag or suffer from any dead spots.

This cast comes together seamlessly, with C.J. Lewis doing fine work as a loyal family friend and Tate Donovan as a tough but sympathetic hockey coach. Still, no one achieves the shattering force of Williams in a late scene when Lee meets Randi by chance on the street, and she crumbles in front of him in mid-conversation and begs forgiveness from him. (“My heart was broken, and it’s always gonna be broken, but I know yours is broken, too.”) Trust this great actress to cut to the heart of things with a burst of pure, clarifying grief.

Lonergan’s movies are about the bonds of family, and Manchester by the Sea hinges on the tentative and sometimes contentious attempts by uncle and nephew to re-connect after years apart, with Lee having to nurse Patrick through a panic attack. (The newcomer Hedges holds up well amid this cast.) Lee may only have his guardian duties for a short time, but they help him see a way through a disaster that would level others, and nowhere is this better expressed than in the movie’s bookending shots of Lee taking Patrick fishing, first as a small boy and then as a teenager. There’s enough misery in this movie to flood Cape Ann, so the hopeful note that it ends on is well-earned.

Manchester by the Sea
Starring Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges. Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan. Rated R.

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