Garret’s Movie Palace: Manchester by the Sea

A gritty little New England fishing village, not far from Boston, is sufficiently important to writer-director Kenneth Lonergan that he makes it the title and the setting of his deeply engrossing new drama. We’d expect to find Manchester’s manner and mannerisms on display here, in the brooding characters and scenery alike, and we won’t be disappointed.

Brooder-in-chief of his family is loner Lee (Casey Affleck, “The Assassination of Jesse James”), a recently divorced handyman—actually, just a glorified janitor—summoned home by the cardiac arrest of brother Joe (Kyle Chandler, Netflix’s “Bloodline”). Joe’s alcoholic wife has long been out of the picture, so Lee is named the unwitting, unwilling guardian of Joe’s teenage son, Patrick (newcomer Lucas Hedges). It’s the last role in the world for which taciturn Lee is prepared: trying to make funeral arrangements while the kid invites pals over for pizza and enlists his “infamous” uncle in a balancing act with his two girlfriends… and counting.

Why is Lee so infamous? Because he picks stupid bar fights? Is he slow-witted, as he seems? Or dazed and suffering from a kind of PTSD after a horrendous event that destroyed his marriage and made him flee from Manchester in the first place?

Director Lonergan is clearly intrigued by dysfunctional guys with a tragic backstory, especially ne’er-do-well uncles as surrogate dads. Such was the case and character of Mark Ruffalo, a similarly Brandoesque brooder in “You Can Count on Me” (2000), with Oscar-nominated Laura Linney, as a brother and sister teaming—and teeming—to raise a problematic fatherless son. His next film, the controversial “Margaret” (2011), was either a mangled masterpiece or an Orson Wellesian train wreck of excessive length, lateness and lawsuits.

At two and a quarter hours, “Manchester” is likewise long, but Jody Lee Lipes’ cinematography helps fill and capture that time nicely, aided by a classical score utilizing Albinoni’s immortal Adagio and Handel’s “He shall feed his flock” from “Messiah.”

But what most elevates the film is its performances. Lucas Hedges is terrific as sharp-tongued, self-absorbed Patrick, forever texting and plotting to get in the pants of multiple girlfriends, and otherwise constantly hitting his uncle Lee up for money or sexual advice. Most stunning, in the end, is Mr. Affleck’s quiet delivery, with his deceptively long or dangerously short fuse—depending on the moment. The portrayal of deep, incapacitating numbness, paralyzed by guilt, amounts to his best-ever performance. But it’s Dawson’s Creek alum Michelle Williams (as Lee’s ex-wife Randi) who really makes you reach for the Kleenex, especially when she bares her soul in a truly stunning final monologue.

“Count on Me” and “Manchester” are both infused with beautifully wry, intelligent writing. “Count on Me” is the better movie of the two. (My favorite exchange in it: “Wanna smoke some pot?” Mr. Ruffalo asks Ms. Linney. “No, I don’t,” she replies with firm disapproval, adding after a beat, “Why? You got some?”)

Humor and heartache inform each other. Mr. Lonergan’s skill at character development is a rare thing, like his attention to detail, which goes beyond the minimum necessary for plot advancement. A crabby wife tells a playful husband to let the sleeping baby alone—“Don’t stir him up!” The excruciating business and mechanics of a death in the family. The awkward, halting conversations—full of painful pauses. All the horses, boys and men can’t put this Humpty named Lee back together again. There’s no facile, feel-good redemption here. But there may be hope. At least this critic’s hope of ending the year on a high note came true.