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Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester By The Sea sneaks up on you. It quietly lures the audience in with flawed, complicated characters who wrestle with a dreadful and universal certainty: death. When you least expect it -- truthfully, because you have been expecting it the entire time -- the movie unloads in one pivotal scene between Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams, and in that moment, you'll be reduced to tears while also feeling an overwhelming desire to celebrate the power of Lonergan's accomplishment.
Stop reading this review if you want to go into this raw, honest and gut-wrenching drama unblemished, because I do believe that the less you know about the story, the better the emotional waves will work on you. Even in this review, I'll do my best to protect the bulk of what's going to happen, because Kenneth Lonergan controls how details are revealed using flashbacks, asides and conversations that arrive when he wants them to.
What you need to know is that Casey Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a Boston janitor who leads a quiet and unassuming life, because he's avoiding some difficult truths in his hometown of Manchester. Only, Lee gets called home when his older brother, Joe (the always dependable Kyle Chandler), dies from heart failure. Unexpectedly, Lee is named custodian of his 16-year-old nephew, Patrick (a fantastic Lucas Hedges), and the two independent men try to figure out how to move forward with that new reality.
And that's all that I really want to tell you. Lee has skeletons in his closet that have kept him out of Manchester, and that material allows Casey Affleck to underplay his part until it's time to exorcise those demons. Manchester director Kenneth Lonergan does two things extremely well: he weaves in scenes of Lee's happier moments in Manchester, when Patrick was a child and Lee had a normal life of his own; and he teases a powerful reveal of why townsfolk in Manchester don't trust Lee, and don't want him around.
Much like Manchester By The Sea patiently treads water until it's chosen moment to strike, Amazon Studios -- a new player in the annual awards race -- is quietly navigate the choppy waters piloted by perennial contenders such as Focus Features, The Weinstein Company and the "Big Boy" studios of Warner Bros., Paramount, Universal, Sony, and Disney. They know they have a compelling dramatic player in their hands, and they're waiting to see how the chips fall before they decide when and where to push. But when we least expect it, if they play their cards right, Amazon could be standing at the podium on Oscar night collecting trophies for Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, and a Best Picture statue for Manchester By The Sea, because the movie certainly deserves to be in those conversation.