Much like the faulty boat engine that splutters its way through the film,

Manchester by the Sea

is a thoughtful study on what happens to a family when things completely, irreparably, fall apart.

Directed by Kenneth Lonergan (Margaret) and starring Casey Affleck in his Golden Globe-winning role, the story follows Lee Chandler, a handyman barely getting by in Boston after being struck by the most inconceivable of tragedies. Without warning, he is forced to return to his frosty hometown after the death of his brother (Kyle Chandler, Friday Night Lights) and pick up the pieces.

What transpires is a no-frills story of grief and loss, eschewing giant cinematic symphonies and dramatic cry-fainting for the quiet, sometimes bleakly hilarious reality of daily life after death.

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Slowly revealing Lee's backstory through increasingly shattering flashbacks, Affleck buries a lifetime of hurt beneath his stony veneer. In as much as a sideways glance or a muttering on the pavement, Affleck masterfully delivers slivers of electricity as a man with nothing left to lose. Don't be surprised if he cleans up many more awards for this career-defining role.

As Lee's 16 year-old nephew Patrick, Lucas Hedges provides the perfect tonal counterpoint - his sarcastic quips and hilarious girlfriend exploits bounce off his new caregiver Uncle Lee like a rubber ball off a concrete wall.

Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams star in Manchester By the Sea. Supplied to TimeOut. MBTS_0194.CR2
Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams star in Manchester By the Sea. Supplied to TimeOut. MBTS_0194.CR2

A watery-eyed Michelle Williams (

Brokeback Mountain

) plays Lee's ex-wife Randi, desperately trying to reconnect the frayed threads that once bound them tightly together. Although only in a handful of scenes, her descent from the sassy, sparkling young mum to a purse-lipped stranger speaks volumes.

Manchester by the Sea is a quiet, contemplative film that blends the most extreme depths of mourning with lashings of playful humour and explosions of anger. Lonergan grounds the story deep into the Massachusetts snow, using long, languid scenes and eerie silence to make this a film that you can physically feel.

Although filled to the brim with star power and chock-full of the most dramatic extremes of the human experience, Manchester by the Sea never feels big or bloated or "too much".

It's messy, uneven, aching and feels a lot closer to real life than most things you'll ever see on the big screen.

4 stars
Cast: Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams,Lucas Hedges
Director: Kenneth Lonergan
Running Time: 136 mins
Rating: R13 (Violence, offensive language, content may disturb)
Verdict: Real life gets the big screen treatment to devastating results.