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Gone Baby Gone makes great debut
Casey Affleck, left, as Patrick Kenzie and Michelle Monaghan as Angie Gennaro act in "Gone Baby Gone."

It’s a good time to be named "Affleck." Bet you haven’t heard that before, have you?

Ben Affleck has become synonymous with tabloid journalism. He is defined by the Jennifers in his life. And he has become the standard punchline for bad actor jokes.

But I’d like you to forget all of that. Erase "Gigli" and all the Bennifer jokes from your mind and think back to 1997, when Affleck and Matt Damon seemed like they were more likely to make their mark on the world from behind the camera than in front of it. Writing Oscars for "Good Will Hunting" put the wunderkinds on the map. Damon has used that bounce to become one of the biggest stars in the world, while Affleck, well, not so much.

After watching "Gone Baby Gone," Affleck’s directorial debut, the past decade seems like a strange, cruel dream. Affleck is back to his roots: the streets of Boston and the complex character writing that first made us take notice.

As implausible as it seems, the former paparazzi poster boy has made one of the best films by a first-time director you’re going to see this year.

Affleck’s first wise decision was choosing to adapt a Dennis Lehane novel set in the Boston neighborhoods he has known all his life. He uses the streets and the people who actually live there as a backdrop so real you can feel the grit under your fingernails. The setting also lends the lead characters an astounding realism and gravity.

Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) and his lover/partner Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan) are hired to investigate the disappearance of a young girl. They battle over territory with the police force but experience worse frustration when the girl’s mother (Amy Ryan) and pretty much the entire neighborhood refuse to cooperate.

The distrust of authority runs deep to say the least. The case turns into a personal crisis for Patrick and Angie as they begin to uncover unimagined corruption and depravity.

Casey Affleck began his career in Ben Affleck’s shadow, but those days are officially over. No one should doubt whether Casey Affleck can carry a film now, because he turns in an intense, surprisingly powerful performance. Monaghan also raises eyebrows in her first lead role not opposite the distracting Tom Cruise ("Mission Impossible III").

The film doesn’t offer easy answers and requires lead actors who can effectively portray its complexity. Casey Affleck and Monaghan do exactly that, with the help of a few veteran supporting actors (Morgan Freeman, Ed Harris and John Ashton).

The tone here is similar to "Mystic River," an adaptation of another Lehane novel. It can be a difficult film to watch if you have trouble seeing children in peril. The focus is mostly on the adults dealing with the disappearance, but there are still hard to stomach moments when kids become victims.

First-time filmmakers deserve a little grace. Even our greatest directors made some glaring mistakes early on. "Gone Baby Gone" has its moments of clumsy transitions and hesitant storytelling, but this is quite literally a great debut. Ben Affleck has a firm grasp on how to draw in an audience, create suspense and shock. The film features several moments of genuine surprise that will have you gasping and jumping in your seat.

It’s a thoughtful film with more suspense and action than you expect from an Oscar contender.