PARK CITY, UTAH -- There’s a seductive sense of irresponsibility that comes with showing up to a film festival halfway through. The frenzy of the opening days has passed, a lot of the dogs have been weeded out, and it’s much easier to get a cab. The 2016 edition of the Sundance Film Festival began last Thursday, but for various logistical reasons, I was unable to make it out to Park City until Monday. Which was fine, because after four days of listening to my fellow critics on Twitter (#Sundance), all I could hear was a sustained digital swooning over Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester by the Sea.”
Coincidentally, the film was screening the afternoon I showed up, after an uncharacteristically mild Werner Herzog documentary about the promises and perils of the Internet. (It’s called “Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World,” and it suggests that some subjects may be too sprawling for even Herzog to wrap his giant Teutonic brain around.)
The hype on “Manchester by the Sea” is earned. It’s a haunting return to cinematic form for playwright-turned-writer-director Lonergan, who struck gold 16 years ago with “You Can Count on Me” -- the movie that made stars of Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo -- and then experienced every filmmaker’s worst nightmare when his follow-up, “Margaret,” encountered editing room battles and received a token release in 2011 after sitting on the shelf for four years. (A three-hour director’s cut made it to DVD in 2012, and it’s very much worth seeing.)
By all accounts, “Manchester” had an easier time of it, and maybe the earlier agita paid off, because the film is Lonergan’s most masterful to date. It also gives Casey Affleck a role that finally allows this curiously private actor to gain some distance on his family name. He plays Lee Chandler, an apartment janitor in Quincy who’s called back to his hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea (the movie foregoes the hyphens) after the death of his fisherman brother (Kyle Chandler) from a heart attack. Lee is clearly damaged from some kind of personal tragedy, which the film fills in via flashbacks during the first hour. When it turns out the brother has named him guardian to his son, you can almost hear the gears start grinding toward formulaic feel-good redemption.
Lonergan isn’t interested. For one thing, the son isn’t a moppet but a lanky, realistically self-absorbed 16-year-old (played with foul-mouthed gusto by Lucas Hedges) with two girlfriends, a garage band, a Bruins fixation, and no patience for his fiercely withdrawn uncle. For another, “Manchester by the Sea” doesn’t try to fix Lee. It just observes him and aches for him, because it’s not often you see a man who walks through life as if he’s already dead.
Among other things, this is a very good, very true New England movie because A) it doesn’t involve gangsters and B) it honors the way men in these parts communicate their love for each other through brutal sarcasm and sullen silences. There’s a fair amount of comedy in the interactions between Lee and his nephew, but there’s a lot more believable awkwardness, resentment, and pain, most of it visibly rippling off of Lee.
Affleck gives a performance of sorrow and control, and when that control cracks -- which it does in a heartbreaking street scene between Lee and his ex-wife, played by Michelle Williams, and, later, in a moment of kitchen table self-awareness to make a grown man weep -- “Manchester by the Sea” becomes the rare drama that acknowledges that certain kinds of damage can’t be undone, that some exiles will never find their way home. You feel this movie’s sadness at the level you feel about those childhood friends of yours who lost their way and weren’t able to make it back. And it’s all there in Casey Affleck’s taut, furious face.
Amazon has picked up the movie for theatrical distribution, and I hope Jeff Bezos’s company does right by it, whenever they decide to put it out. If Lonergan missteps at all, it’s in the swaths of classical music -- Handel, Bach, Albinoni -- that occasionally overwhelm the soundtrack. Beautiful in and of themselves, they come from outside the characters’ world, whereas everything else in this rich, empathetic work erupts from within them. It says a lot about “Manchester by the Sea” that I went to another movie afterwards and spent most of the time thinking about the movie I’d just come from.
More from Ty Burr:firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter, @tyburr.