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Affleck is Oscar-worthy in the tragic, funny 'Manchester By the Sea'

At first in Kenneth Lonergan’s gorgeously sad and occasionally very funny “Manchester by the Sea,” you cannot tell quite what is going on in Lee Chandler’s head.

Quiet in his demeanor and matter of fact in his work, Lee is a janitor and handyman for a group of apartments in Boston, the sort of guy who works for the complex’s super but isn’t a super himself. He takes out the garbage and makes small repairs, he generally keep to himself, he tries not to flip out at rude tenants and he sometimes fails.

Casey Affleck, in an performance of exceptional restraint, plays his cards close to the chest in these opening scenes — you can’t tell if he is angry or detached or what. It is a cold and seemingly lonely life he leads. There is base-level exhaustion in his affect; it’s the look of a man who maybe wants to get through the day, but maybe not.

Lonergan, a playwright both by profession and at heart (don’t expect the camera to do anything fancy), reveals information slowly, like a jigsaw puzzle that you have to work from the borders inward.

In flashbacks, we learn about Lee, bit by bit. He enjoys going fishing with his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler, and wow is it weird hearing a Boston accent come out of that guy’s mouth) and his brother’s young son. Joe’s marriage seems to be a bit of a mess; Joe is a good dad, but his wife (Gretchen Mol) is a drunk. Nothing good will come of this union.

By contrast, Lee seems more stable. He has a wife (Michelle Williams) and a couple of young kids. He still likes to party in the basement with Joe and the rest of his blue-collar pals, guys who maybe aren’t above mixing a little cocaine with endless cans of cheap beer, but what’s the harm now and then? It seems like a decent life.

When Joe suddenly of a heart attack, Lee seems genuinely shocked that Joe named Lee sole guardian for his now-teenage son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Not only has Joe never discussed this, Lee seems to find it unthinkable. It seems reasonable to us: Joe clearly didn’t trust his now -ex wife, he and his brother have a good relationship, heart attacks happen — shouldn’t Lee have seen something like this was at least a possibility?

And then, in a flashback, we learn why Lee finds Joe’s decision baffling. We learn the shape and nature of the weight in his eyes, the crushing shame and guilt in his footsteps. The revelation is stunning in its horror. All at once, we get it. We get him — he is grief and guilt made flesh.

Lonergan has a special facility with two things: death and young (or untested) actors. He directed Mark Ruffalo in the latter’s breakout role in “You Can Count on Me,” a movie over which death hangs like a fog, but it was young Rory Culkin whose presence amplifies both Ruffalo’s and co-star Laura Linney’s work in that film. Though a total pro even then, Anna Paquin was only 23 when Lonergan directed her in the Sept. 11-haunted “Margaret;” some consider it a masterpiece, with her performance at the center.

Hedges, all of 19 when this was shot, is the young person at the center of “Manchester.” It’s an immensely complicated role — it’s rare that someone in mourning over a recently deceased parent must also serve as the comic foil for the lead. Hedges handles it beautifully, with a resilience, energy and vulnerability that seems uniquely teenaged. Even if Lee will never be completely healed, we know that Patrick will.

“Manchester by the Sea” traffics in an emotionally authentic realism. Given the tragedy at the film’s heart, some will find the humor jarring. But great and constant sorrow can absolutely co-exist with belly laughs — Lonergan knows it’s how we stay human. And humane.

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