Movie review: 'Manchester by the Sea' brings emotion in waves

Brad Keefe, Columbus Alive

Kenneth Lonergan has directed just three films, so any new release by him is cause for celebration. It just so happens that "Manchester by the Sea" is also his best work to date.

In his 2000 debut, "You Can Count on Me," Lonergan wove a story about a single mother and her estranged brother into something deeply human, moving and funny. He also got a career-defining performance from Laura Linney and introduced the world to the acting talents of Mark Ruffalo.

Lonergan went bold with his sophomore film, the sweeping "Margaret," which he wrote in 2003 and filmed in 2005 before it was shelved by the studio for six years, finally surfacing in 2011. With a running time that pushed three hours, it showcased some of Lonergan's best instincts, if sometimes feeling a bit excessive.

"Manchester" is his first film since, and somehow the years have only increased Lonergan's touch for finding simple human stories that mix warmness and melancholy without feeling contrived.

Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) works as a handyman at an apartment complex in Boston. He lives a simple and solitary life, although his calm, hardworking demeanor masks some inner turmoil.

The death of his older brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), brings Lee reluctantly back to the fishing town he grew up in. His plan to take care of funeral arrangements and return to his normal life takes a twist when he learns Joe has left Lee the custody of his teenage son (Lucas Hedges).

The bonds they formed earlier in life are strained as the two navigate the prospect of their changing lives, as well as confronting their pasts.

Lonergan unveils his story like a masterful novelist, dangling some information out of our reach until it's needed. The moments of impact arrive without a sweeping score. They feel the way they do in life, when a moment changes you seemingly forever.

His amazing knack for story is also met with an ability to bring the best out of his cast. Casey Affleck, who had previously proved to be the more talented actor in the family, gives his best performance to date. It's easier for an actor to depict the crescendo of dormant emotion, but Affleck also portrays the quiet swallowing of feelings.

He's matched with a superb performance by the young Lucas Hedges, who delivers a more thoughtful variation of teenage angst.

There's warmth and a relief of humor to balance the weight, making "Manchester" not just an emotional punch, but a deeply entertaining one. It's one of the year's best films.

"Manchester by the Sea"

Opens Friday

4 stars out of 4