Director Kenneth Lonergan admitted he was anxious as he introduced his new drama “Manchester By the Sea” to the Sundance crowd at a Saturday afternoon matinee premiere.

“I’m a little nervous because it’s a huge theater, and I’m a small person,” Lonergan said.

It turned out he had nothing to worry about. “Manchester By The Sea” wowed the Park City crowd, between gulps of laughter and tears, and immediately launched talk about next year’s Oscars.

“Manchester” tells the story of a janitor, Lee (Casey Affleck), who moves back home to a small town on the Massachusetts shore to take care of his brother’s son (Lucas Hedges) after a tragedy strikes. The movie flashes back and forth, where we meet Lee’s brother (Kyle Chandler) and wife (Michelle Williams, who is heartbreakingly wonderful in a supporting role).

After the lights came back up, “Manchester” received a thunderous standing ovation. Longeran was joined onstage by his cast, including producer Matt Damon, who was originally supported to star in and/or direct the film. But after his schedule wouldn’t allow Damon to start production last year, he told Longeran there was only one other actor he’d surrender the role to–Affleck. Damon said he cried every time he saw a cut of the film or read a draft of the script.

With the right distributor–all the major players were in the audience (eager to buy something following a slow two days of screenings)–“Manchester” seems destined to be a major Oscars
contender, potentially picking up nominations in categories like best picture, actor, supporting actor (19-year-old Hedges is sure to be a breakout star), supporting actress and original screenplay. Of course, it might seem way too early to handicap the 2017 Oscars, but there’s precedent for it. The electric applause inside the Eccles after “Manchester By the Sea” premiered was reminiscent of when “Boyhood” debuted there two years ago.