Kenneth Lonergan knows people. As the writer-director proved with his beautifully gentle breakthrough "You Can Count on Me" and his sophomore feature "Margaret" (as well as the plays "This Is Our Youth" and "Lobby Hero"), he is the master of telling behavior and conversational nuance. With Lonergan, the devil is in the details, but so are the angels. Lonergan sees where a person can stumble but believes in humanity's capacity for balance. And when you do fall, Lonergan has faith that you can count on someone to be good enough to help you up.
That's the crux of the prolific screenwriter's third film as director: "Manchester by the Sea." No, it's not a stately-homes costume drama or your parents' favorite bed and breakfast. It's the Massachusetts home town of the film's central figure, the determined island of a man that is Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck). When his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) passes away, bristly handyman Lee must return home to make arrangements, further complicated by the ones Joe secretly laid out in his will.
Though Lee cares about his 16-year-old nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges), the socially shut down older man isn't prepared to take on a teen's guardianship. When he does, with his eyes ever darting toward the exit, uncle and nephew quickly establish a new, mutually testy relationship. Their problems are complicated by Lee's total discomfort with the town where Patrick has worked his social life to include two girlfriends and a garage band drolly named Stentorian.
Lonergan's pronounced sense of humor makes bearable the story's unfathomable grief. Aside from the fresh wound of Joe's death, Lee has a hole where his heart should be as a result of the personal tragedy that decimated his own family. In one of the film's very best scenes, Lee awkwardly confronts his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams, raw as ever), both desperately protecting their own emotional needs even as each seeks not to hurt the other.
In its broad strokes, "Manchester by the Sea" doesn't explore anything new. Its story of grief is familiar, some might even say "hackneyed." But no other writer-director could craft a scene as masterful as the one when Lee arrives at the hospital where his brother's body awaits him in the morgue. We've already seen Lee to be allergic to small talk and disinterested in human contact. Awkwardly navigating the unknown terrain of post-mortem arrangements, the shambolic Lee further unnerves all involved with his emotional disconnect and circuitous verbiage, played with symphonic precision by Affleck.
Well matched by a finely tuned Hedges, Affleck's sad, sad man embodies the film's central, character-exploring theme. Deaths happen. Life goes mercilessly on. And it rarely does so in the manner of tidy resolution, "Good Will Hunting" be damned. In fact, producer Matt Damon hatched the plot (with John Krasinski) and originally planned to direct. In the hands of his trusted colleague Lonergan, "Manchester by the Sea" becomes something inimitable and special: an empathetic guided tour of despair and the loving effort to rise above, if only for those who still have hope.