Sundance 2016: Festival delivers first masterpiece with Casey Affleck in Manchester By the Sea | EW.com
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Sundance 2016: Festival delivers its first masterpiece with Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea

(Jason Merritt/Getty Images)

As cushy as attending film festivals may sound, for those of us who cover them they can sometimes feel like fear-drenched endurance tests. You’ll attend four (sometimes five) movies a day and race from theater to theater nagged by the constant fear that the one film you’re missing will be the one gem that everyone will be talking about. It’s a constant state of grass-is-greener envy. I’ve learned over the years to try and push that aside and accept whatever gifts the movie gods give you, but it isn’t always easy. Fortunately, this year, somewhere about a third of the way into Kenneth Lonergan’s world premiere of Manchester by the Sea, I realized I was in exactly the right place at exactly the right time.

Lonergan, the brilliant playwright who made his name with 1996’s Off-Broadway sensation This is Our Youth, made his name as a film director here at Sundance back in 2000 with his debut, You Can Count on Me. I was at that film’s first screening here and I remember that rare feeling of discovery I had watching it — I also walked out thinking that I wanted to see anything and everything that its mostly unknown star, Mark Ruffalo, did from that point on. You Can Count on Me went on to become that year’s “Little Movie That Could” – one of those perfectly observed indie dramas like In the Bedroom that manages to have a life beyond Sundance. And while it wouldn’t take long to see more of Ruffalo, the same couldn’t be said for Lonergan. His next film, the ill-fated, underseen Margaret, took 11 years to finally arrive.

Some directors like Woody Allen, of course, manage to crank out a film a year like clockwork. Lonergan isn’t one of those directors. With the help of producer Matt Damon, it took five more years for him to deliver his third film, Manchester by the Sea, but it was worth every minute of the wait. It’s a rich, haunting, and excruciatingly powerful meditation on loss and grief — the theme, for those keeping score at home, of all of Lonergan’s films to date. Still, he keeps finding new things to say with a rare power and grace.

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Casey Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a quiet, sad, put-upon handyman from Massachusetts’ blue-collar north shore whose older brother (played by Kyle Chandler) dies of a heart attack, leaving behind a 16-year-old son named Patrick (Lucas Hedges). When Lee returns to Manchester, the coastal town he grew up in, to make plans for the funeral, he discovers that his brother has named him as Patrick’s legal guardian — a role and a responsibility he has no interest in taking on. Through a series of layer-peeling flashbacks, we slowly realize why that is. The town of Manchester holds nothing but tragic memories for him – memories about the family of his own that he lost that he just can’t shake. He’s a shell of regret, something Affleck conveys in downcast, lost-soul eyes.  

Affleck, an actor I tend to blow hot and cold on, has found the role of his career in Lee. His tendency to be downcast and mumbly and withholding works perfectly for the character. And Hedges as his teenage nephew Patrick, who’s dealing with tragedy in his own authentically teenage way, is a real find. Michelle Williams, Matthew Broderick, Gretchen Mol, and C.J. Wilson are also beneficiaries of Lonergan’s naturalistic, layered character portraits. If I were an actor and had the patience to wait around five years for his next film, I’d kill to be in a Lonergan movie. He makes actors shine to the point where we feel like we really know and understand them. Manchester by the Sea is a tender and emotional film leavened with laughs that come at just the right time. And while I’m not going to go as far as some and start screaming “Oscars!” just yet (especially since we haven’t even handed out this year’s batch), this is a mature, richly rewarding movie you’ll definitely want to check out when it hits theaters.

Before the Lonergan screening, I had a chance to check out my first documentary of this year’s Sundance and was reduced to a puddle of tears (it was an emotional day, folks). Brian Oakes’ Jim recounts the tragic life of the foreign correspondent James Foley, who was kidnapped in Syria and savagely murdered by ISIS in 2014. For most of us, Foley’s execution captured on video was our first real introduction to ISIS’ barbaric brutality. Foley’s death showed us a new face of terror. But lost amidst the ever-churning news cycle was a deeper understanding of who Foley was and why he did what he did for a living. Oakes’ film, which will air on HBO, remedies that. And after spending two hours with Foley’s tight-knit New Hampshire family, his combat journalist colleagues, and the prisoners he shared a cell with in Syria, we feel like we’ve not only gotten to know him, but also the sheer size of his heart. It makes the loss feel all that more heartbreaking.

Maybe I was simply out of tears after Manchester by the Sea and Jim, but by the time I got to last night’s premiere of Viggo Mortensen’s new film, Captain Fantastic, I found myself slightly less moved than the folks sniffling around me. Written and directed by Matt Ross (you may know him better as the villainous Alby from Big Love or the also-villainous Gavin Belson from Silicon Valley), Captain Fantastic stars Mortensen as a hippie father who’s raising his six children off-the-grid deep in the lush woods of the Pacific Northwest. The kids read political theory around a campfire, hunt for their food with knives, train in self-defense, and celebrate Noam Chomsky’s birthday like it’s Christmas. Mortensen’s loving-but-strict Ben has created his own Eden. But it’s threatened when his wife (who was in a hospital) dies by suicide and Ben’s in-laws (Frank Langella and Ann Dowd) want custody of the kids. All of this comes to a head when Ben and the kids load up their groovy, Partridge Family-style school bus and head to New Mexico for their mother’s funeral, giving them their first real taste of the outside world of suburban strip malls, supermarkets, video games, and other kids who don’t know who Noam Chomsky is and are too absorbed by their iPhones to care. Captain Fantastic is charmingly eccentric and sweet and funny — and Mortensen is terrific (no huge surprise there). But for a film about rising up against the predictable, the mawkish, and the mainstream, it felt oddly by the numbers to me.