It’s odd that the Hollywood establishment has only taken notice of Casey Affleck for his supporting role in “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.” Yes, he was one of the few bright moments of that film, but where’s the love for his even better work in “Gone Baby Gone” and “The Killer Inside Me?” Well, here’s another chance for the awards people.

In “Manchester by the Sea,” a film that runs a little too long and has a few too many words and flashbacks, he plays Lee, a lost, lonely soul, a man who was once happy but now finds himself floundering about, thinking far too often about a tragedy that sent his life into a tailspin. It would be fair to say it’s the best and most challenging role of his career.

Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan (“You Can Count on Me”) the film takes its time explaining how the story and the characters have gotten to where they are now. Lee, right now, is a janitor, looking after four apartment buildings in a small Massachusetts town. He’s quiet, polite, and dedicated to the job, but he can snap when difficult tenants become extremely rude, and his temper can flare if he’s had a few too many drinks at the local watering hole.

He’s glum, but he’s getting by. Then a phone call comes, resulting in the need for him to leave town “for about a week,” he tells his boss. The purpose is to take care of his ailing brother Joe (Kyle Chandler), but he gets to the hospital too late; Joe has died of congestive heart failure.

It’s then that the flashbacks begin their regular appearances. Some are bleak, such as the one that tells of Joe, Lee, and Joe’s wife Elise (Gretchen Moll) first finding out about his condition; others are happy, like the one showing Lee accompanying Joe and his young son Patrick (Ben O’Brien) on a long-ago fishing trip on Joe’s boat.

Now, years later, Lee is the one who has to tell 16-year-old Patrick (Lucas Hedges) the bad news. That translates into two glum guys, sitting next to each other in a car, with no idea of what to say to each other. The bottom line of the story is that Lee, who was once a family man but can now only think of that as a life he’s no longer a part of, is called on to become Patrick’s legal guardian, since his mom, the once-alcohol-addled Elise, long ago left town.

This is not what Lee considers to be good news, as he is, for personal and tragic reasons that are also revealed in flashback, done with families and the accompanying responsibility. On top of that, Patrick, who doesn’t seem to be affected by his dad’s death, really doesn’t want anything to do with Lee.

If you don’t mind a movie filled with forlorn people, this might be right up your alley. Fortunately there are some breaks from the grimness, but they’re fleeting. Patrick is happy with his girlfriend, even though he’s cheating on her. Lee’s ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams) had a great relationship with him and their kids, until something led to her regularly cursing at him — and that was before tragedy hit.

It all finally forms into a film about non-communication, about a good man who’s haunted by grief and guilt, but who keeps trying to make things right. Everything centers on the performance of Affleck, who does a lot of acting with just his eyes, as they dart back and forth and up and down, checking out other people when they’re speaking to him. There’s also a great casting choice of pairing him up with Kyle Chandler as brothers, because the similarities are remarkable. But there’s a questionable one of sticking Matthew Broderick in the film for a few minutes as a manipulative and unnecessary character.

Things get worse, things get better, things get worse, and we’re always hoping that Lee can work things out. But all that Lonergan offers in the end is the neutral thought that “life goes on.”

— Ed Symkus covers movies for More Content Now.

“Manchester by the Sea”
Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan
With Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, Kyle Chandler, Michelle Williams, Gretchen Mol
Rated R