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Casey Affleck in 'Manchester By the Sea'

And so our first Sundance journey has come to a close. The festival did not disappoint, as we saw some a wide variety of films from diverse viewpoints. But few films at this year’s Sundance have generated as much buzz and critical hosannas as Manchester By the Sea. Produced by Matt Damon, Manchester was written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count On Me, Margaret). Does it live up to the mountain-high hype?

In Manchester, Casey Affleck plays a handyman named Lee who works on a Boston city block. It is very clear from the beginning that Lee is a bit antisocial and has a serious chip on his shoulder, as we witness him cursing out a client and picking a fight in a bar. In flashbacks, we see Lee in happier times with his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) and nephew on the boat that Joe owns. However, in the present day, Lee gets the call that Joe has suddenly passed away, leaving Lee’s 16-year-old nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) in his care. Lee is reluctant to return to hometown to take on this new responsibility, and we learn that he has reason: He is guilt-ridden over an unspeakable tragedy that occurred there years ago. Michelle Williams has a small but pivotal role in the film as Lee’s ex-wife.

I know what you’re thinking: not another Sundance film about a disaffected man called back home to deal with a family death and exorcise the ghosts of his past. (We’ve seen that this week with Other People and The Hollars.) But Manchester By the Sea is distinguished by its gravitas and carefully observed domestic drama. There’s a raw, lived-in quality to the movie, and characters don’t converse in glib movie-speak.

Unlike Other People and The Hollars, Manchester is not a comedy, but even with its grim, grotty feel, Manchester By the Sea is an often funny film. Much of the film’s humor comes from young Patrick (Hedges), a teenager who juggles two girlfriends and plays in a ridiculous garage band called Stentorian. But the laughs in Manchester feel earned and true, not schtick-y.

Affleck is absolutely superb in as the film’s lead, unleashing a Brando-esque intensity we’ve never seen from him before. And Hedges is a find. Both will be discussed around awards time next year, if there’s any justice.

The final film I saw at Sundance was Indignation, an adaptation of Philip Roth‘s novel and the directorial debut of famed screenwriter James Schamus. The story begins in 1951 Newark, New Jersey, with young Jewish student Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman) working in his father’s kosher butcher shop. Thousands of miles away, the Korean War rages on, and several of Marcus’ peers have lost their lives to the conflict. Marcus avoids the draft by enrolling in college in Ohio, but there, he’s drawn into his own personal conflicts. The atheist Marcus rebuffs insistent offers to join the school’s Jewish fraternity, and he quickly finds himself at loggerheads with the school’s Christian dean (an imperious Tracy Letts). Complicating matters, he falls for a sexually forward, emotionally (and physically) scarred classmate (Sarah Gadon) who makes him question his values.

Lerman captivates as the film’s protagonist, and his scenes quarreling with Letts crackle with intellectual virtuosity. We’ve seen many coming-of-age dramas over the years, and this one ranks among the most poignant.

In the whirlwind of Sundance, there were several buzzy films that we regrettably missed (Christine, The Birth of a Nation, Sing Street), but we walk away from this festival feeling hopeful about the future of film. Potent, passionate content spanning the globe is still being made. Bring on 2017’s festival!

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By Kevin Wicks
Kevin Wicks is the founding editor of Anglophenia.