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January 25, 2017

Is “Manchester by the Sea” the best movie about New England?

A couple weeks after the presidential election, I compiled and published here a top-50 movie list in which I selected my favorite film for each U.S. state, based on narrative setting rather than filming location: a sort of cinematic travel guide for our large, fractured nation. New England yielded “The Fighter” (Massachusetts), “Far from Heaven” (Connecticut), “Reversal of Fortune” (Rhode Island), “The Devil and Daniel Webster” (New Hampshire), “Wet Hot American Summer” (Maine), and “Super Troopers” (Vermont). I wondered whether one or two readers might be offended—to whatever degree it’s possible to be offended by so trivial a subject—by my unabashedly lowbrow choice for Vermont’s representation, but of course that was part of the fun of choosing it.

Each state demanded some thoughtful consideration among a host of worthy contenders—for Connecticut, I might just as well have gone with the immortal comic fantasy “Beetlejuice” or the underappreciated sci-fi drama “Another Earth,” and for Vermont, I pondered former Northeast Kingdom resident David Mamet’s “State and Main” as well as the deeply local mockumentary “Man with a Plan”—but, commensurate to its population advantage (at 6.8 million, nearly double the next largest state in the region), Massachusetts offered by far the most options, both good and bad. For me, the great ones included the elegant political thriller “The Ghost Writer” and last year’s understated Best Picture winner “Spotlight,” but most movie fans would also mention “Mystic River,” “Good Will Hunting,” “The Departed,” and undoubtedly “Jaws.”

Arguably, in this sense, the contest for New England’s best movie—which, unlike the state-specific races, would also include generically New England films like “On Golden Pond” and “Moonrise Kingdom,” whose fictional settings transcend state lines—is primarily the contest for Massachusetts’ best movie. In November, for me, that was David O. Russell’s ferocious, funny boxer-biopic “The Fighter,” but now that I’ve seen the current award-season contender “Manchester by the Sea” (now playing), my allegiance has shifted.

Although I was born in Cambridge, Mass., and have lived, at least briefly, in three New England states, I’m not a real New England native and am certainly not the amateur film critic best suited to determine the quintessential New England film, so perhaps someone with stronger bona fides can confirm my suspicion that the title must now belong to “Manchester by the Sea,” Kenneth Lonergan’s low-key epic of family ties, memory, and perseverance, with Casey Affleck as an emotionally ruptured handyman returning from Quincy, Mass., to the haunted terrain of his North Shore hometown for the sake of his orphaned nephew.

Lonergan, who, though raised in New York City, previously handled small-town life with grace and compassion in “You Can Count on Me,” has here created a drama of novelistic depth, in which the characters are so fully human and complicated, and their interactions so nuanced, that even many of the best films of recent years seem, by comparison, thin and underdeveloped in their writing. “Manchester by the Sea” is a powerfully sad experience, but it’s not a tragedy: in a quietly radical way, it’s specifically a story about what comes after tragedy, about life continuing to be lived, about how some things can ruin you forever and then you still have to keep on going somehow, day after day. In this mundane process the movie finds its humor, pathos, and suspense.

The emotional territory inhabited by “Manchester by the Sea” is universal, but it’s also a continuation of a localized mode of filmmaking sparked by the Affleck-Damon partnership that took flight with “Good Will Hunting” (1997), whose Oscar-winning screenplay, transported to film with more artistry than it deserved by Gus Van Sant, kicked off a Hollywood fascination with the rough, blue-collar men of Greater Boston (and, to a lesser degree, with the bedraggled women who love them). Massachusetts, the land of Harvard and the Kennedys, became the cinematic epicenter for a kind of gritty authenticity: a somberly presented, dignified, Northeastern version of “white trash” that existed not so far beyond the cultural parameters of New York City as to repel the empathy of our nation’s film critics and tastemakers.

These movies—extending from “The Boondock Saints” through “Mystic River,” “The Departed,” “Gone Baby Gone,” “The Town,” “The Fighter,” “Shutter Island,” “Killing Them Softly,” “Black Mass,” and now “Patriots Day”—strove, by and large, for seriousness and sensitivity, but were often limited by their dogged masculinity: the Boston trend found its comfort zone in the crime novels of Dennis Lehane, whose evocatively grim settings nevertheless produced thriller-genre plots of violence and (some) action.

“Manchester by the Sea,” which was produced and partly conceived by Matt Damon, is more comfortably artsy than its Massachusetts brethren and lacks the usual tough-guy posturing. Its pace is slower, allowing it to receive its coastal New England landscape meditatively—the delicate, picturesque beauty and the harsh wintry gloom of the region are equally registered in the film’s painterly tones, but the movie contains no drummed-up threat of blue-collar decline heading toward despair and brutality. Lonergan instead finds a considerable form of civilization in the film’s landscape of comfortable homes and well-meaning people. In short, this is a version of Massachusetts—and of New England—that is not designed particularly to frighten people, whatever may happen in the events of the story.

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