Casey Affleck gives a career-best performance as Lee Chandler, a quiet, closed-off janitor living a life of almost complete isolation in Quincy, Massachusetts. Beyond outbursts of drunk, self-destructive violence he barely interacts with the world around him, but when older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) collapses and dies he's forced to return to his home town - the titular Manchester-by-the-Sea. He's astonished to learn that teenage nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) has been left in his care, and as he wrestles with this new responsibility the ghosts of his past threaten to pull him under for good. Deeply moving drama from writer-director Kenneth Lonergan, with stunning support from Michelle Williams.
With his long-awaited third feature writer-director Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count On Me, Margaret) asks cinemagoers to forego frothy, feel-good escapism and instead settle in for two-plus hours of life-shattering loss, grief and guilt.
That's a pretty tough sell in a world where each and every day seems to bring fresh horror, but no mistake about it those who take the plunge will be damn glad they did. Entire stretches of Manchester by the Sea are nigh-on perfect.
Lonergan has a masterful way of drawing out scenes just that little bit longer than you're expecting, almost to the point where you're watching something you feel you shouldn't.
The performances are so natural and so real that certain moments seem too private, the camera lingering, motionless and still, as Casey Affleck's Lee Chandler reveals tell-tale signs of the pain and vulnerability barely contained beneath the surface.
At first his reclusive, closed-off handyman appears to have withdrawn from the world by choice, but that couldn't be further from the truth. The death of older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) takes him back to the sparse, coastal town where he once shared a happy life with ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams, stunningly good) and old wounds begin to re-open.
Now he's the Lee Chandler, and as details of his heartbreaking past come to light you understand why he is the way he is.
Affleck deserves every ounce of praise that's coming his way. He nails the haunted, hollow-eyed look of a man struggling with emotional trauma so profound and devastating that he's been forced to completely shut down.
Summoning the strength to re-enter the land of the living and look after teenage nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) stretches him to breaking point, and when at last he lets his guard down a grown man suddenly becomes a lost little boy.
As painfully sad as all this sounds not once does the film feel forced or overdone. Yes there's tragedy, but it always sits believably alongside the everyday.
There are practicalities and routine frustrations that need to be dealt with, arrangements that need to be made. There are also moments of genuine humour and warmth, because that's how real life works.