Some Sundance movies are applauded and whoo-whooed, and others just sink in and melt you down. They get you in such a vulnerable place that your admiration is mixed with a kind of stunned feeling, like you’ve been hit square in the heart. Kenneth Lonergan‘s Manchester-By-The-Sea, which played this afternoon at the Eccles, is one of the latter. It’s not an upper by any stretch, but in no way is it a downer. It’s really one of the saddest films I’ve ever seen, and if you’ve got any buried hurt it’ll kill you. This is 2016’s first slam-dunk Best Picture contender, and it will definitely result, trust me, in Casey Affleck landing his first Best Actor nomination.

Cast & crew of Manchester By The Sea following 3 pm Eccles screening. Director-writer Kenneth Lonergan is on far left.

During post-screening q & a (l to .r.) Casey Affleck, Matt Damon, Kyle Chandler.

In part because Affleck has delivered the finest, most affecting performance of his life, and in part because he’s lucked into one of the best written lonely-sad-guy roles in years, and because the part, that of Lee Chandler, a Boston janitor and handyman struggling with a horrific mistake that has wounded him for life, taps into that slightly downcast melancholy thing that Affleck has always carried around. It’s like when Gregory Peck played Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird — it’s one of those legendary perfect fits.

I know what you’re thinking — “another grief recovery drama?” Trust me, it’s not that. For one thing its not about “recovery” in any usual, ordinary sense. And it’s about much more than that anyway, and the writing is just spot-on — masterful — in each and every scene. And it can be summed up in a stick-to-your-ribs line, spoken by Affleck’s Chandler, that everyone will remember after seeing Manchester sometime next fall: “I can’t beat it.”

Chandler, a resident of Quincy, is a drinker and a loner with a hair-trigger temper after he’s had a few. The story kicks in when he learns that his older brother (Kyle Chandler) has passed from a heart attack in Manchester-By-The-Sea, an actual seaside town in Massachucetts.. When he speaks to the family attorney he learns he’s been named guardian to his 16-year-old nephew (Lucas Hedges, delivering an ace-level performance), and that the most sensible option is to move to Manchester and help the kid along as best he can. 

Except Lee can’t bring himself to even consider moving back there. There’s a kind of monster in that town, you see, and if he gets too close…

Manchester-By-The-Sea is an American small-town family drama, and it taps right into that thing, that terrible thing that some of us have inside, that awful thing you can’t quite forgive yourself for, that remnant of a nightmare that will never be stilled. 

If you don’t get the difference between “devastatingly sad” and “depressing,” then you need to see Lonergan’s drama at the first opportunity. It just floored the shit out of me. I could feel tears welling up during the last third, and especially the last 20 or 25 minutes. It’s in the emotional realm of Ordinary People only better, and somewhat similar to Todd Field‘s In The Bedroom only in a more intimate and pulverizing way.

Manchester-By-The-Sea is so good I’m determined to see it again at the Monday press screening.

18 year-old Manchester-By-The-Sea costar Lucas Hedges could easily be campaigning for Best Supporting Actor 12 months hence.