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'Manchester by the Sea' is one of the year's best

Casey Affleck is nearly the exact opposite of his brother Ben.

Ben is tall, handsome and often as comfortable being a gregarious  movie star as he as an actor and a director of Oscar-winning films. Casey is thin, ordinary-looking and sounds, when he talks, as if any kind of extroversion is anathema to him.

As a movie actor, he seems disgusted by the very degree of which his profession borders on being a movie star. Look at the movie in which he collaborated with his friend Joaquin Phoenix, "I'm Still Here," an actor's cry from the heart against everything they loathe about what they do. (In Phoenix' fraudulence on the Letterman Show, they converted a joke into the most dramatic kidding-on-the-square alienation launched by any actor since Brando. Seldom has a movie kidded itself more pathetically.)

Casey Affleck plays a grieving brother, uncle and father in "Manchester by the Sea." It has become the heart of very prominent Oscar speculation about him.

But he is not the actor who, in two scenes, sets this very gray film about grief aflame. One of them is Michelle Williams, playing his ex-wife. They have a confrontation on the street which sends this film into a raw anguish that has little, if any, parallel to any film you've seen in a very long time. It's an amazing scene. The only phrase I could think of to describe it is from a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins---"pitched past pitch of grief."

Fortunately, the other scene that blazes so memorably in Kenneth Lonergan's film is comic. It's about the burgeoning sex life of a 16-year-old boy who is having a devil of a time getting his erotic intentions toward the willing female singer in his band to square up with their fleeting opportunities for a hookup.

What is so richly comic about the fumblings of teen sex in this movie is that all of the adults in position to supervise the kids are completely on board with whatever they wind up doing. But sex, as it sometimes is in the world, is only "natural" as a desire. As a matter of actual convenience and life circumstance, it is seldom as simple as mere desire.

The sex scenes in "Manchester by the Sea" are fresh and very very funny.

This is otherwise a film that is submerged in gray -- a film that begins seeming to be about one form of family grief but turns out to be a bludgeoningly powerful film about another.

Affleck plays the janitor for four apartment houses owned by the same man in Boston. He is a withdrawn man who leads an ingrown, solitary life. His major social contact with the world is the occasional bar brawl he gets into when his beer intake has been sufficient.

He is lonely and angry. By choice.

Until he finds out that his brother -- a congenial family man in nearby Manchester (Kyle Chandler) -- has died of the long-standing heart condition that loomed over his life. What is now necessary is for someone to take charge of  everything in Manchester that his brother's death has left behind -- his house, his boat and, most importantly, the son who is not exactly what an angry, isolated man would choose for a newfound life responsibility.

We watch the story of reluctant uncle and nephew trying to work their way through fate, until the shattering and magnificently conceived moment in Lonergan's film when you're given to understand the almost unimaginable quantity of grief that this movie is really about.

There is a tragedy at the heart of this family which is virtually unthinkable. How we think about grief -- or don't -- is the movie's huge center.

It's why Affleck's surly, introverted minimalism as an actor in this film is so affecting. Even the smallest hint of his real-life brother's conviviality in the part would sink this film into conventionality and remove its raw, bruising realism.

Lonergan is a playwright whose lines sound almost completely unwritten most of the time. His last film -- "You Can Count on Me "-- was another extraordinary bit of realism about family lives seldom seen so close.

The film is dependent on Affleck's repressed and stifled life. Even his way of kidding around with his nephew in flashback sounds more surly than fun. His is a submersion in gray blue collar privation on the Massachusetts shore.

When the fire so briefly flares up amid all the gray, the movie makes its points indelibly.

It is, to be sure, one of the most affecting films of this surprising year. It's about how very much emotion some lives are required to contain silently while, for all the world, they function day to day.

Those two flares amid all the gray -- one comic, one laceratingly tragic - - are the human point of "Manchester by the Sea."

By film's end, you couldn't be more grateful for them.

MOVIE REVIEW

"Manchester by the Sea"

3.5 stars (out of four)

Starring: Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Lucas Hedges, Kyle Chandler, Stephen McKinley Henderson

Director: Kenneth Lonergan

Running time: 137 minutes

Rating: R for language and some sex.

The lowdown: A man and his family struggle with different kinds of family grief.

Email: jsimon@buffnews.com

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