Oscar Winner/ Bechdel Test Loser: Manbabies By the Sea

January 29th, 2019

It was a week after the WOMEN’S MARCH in January of 2017 when I went to see Manchester By the Sea. By movie’s end, my optimism fueled by the March was replaced by a sense of doom. In case you haven’t seen it, and even if you have, please indulge me a moment as I describe the movie I saw:

Lee Chandler, an emotionally impotent, straight white guy whose past drunken, drugged out acts led to the tragic deaths of his two young daughters, must return to his hometown after his brother dies, leaving Chandler the sole guardian of his teenage nephew, Patrick. While there, Chandler broods a bunch, further upsets his traumatized ex-wife (with whom he cruelly refuses to so much as engage in discussion), picks a meaningless fight in a bar, facilitates his nephew’s disrespectful treatment of his two girlfriends, each unaware of the other, and reinforces the kid’s sense of entitlement by giving him everything he wants (thereby ensuring he, too, will grow up to be a self-serving, sexist pig). Damage done, Chandler leaves town again, still unable to confront, much less take any accountability for his own bad behavior—past or present.

Of course, most critics’ reviews paint a very different picture, lauding Casey Affleck’s brooding, er, uh, “nuanced performance,” praising the movie’s “realism,” extolling its “sensitive” depiction of grief and gushing about the profound sympathy they feel for the pitiable protagonist because he so clearly feels guilt for his prior bad acts.


All I could think as I read said reviews was, “Gee, if a female character burned her kids alive because she was carelessly boozing and drugging one night, would we be quick to forgive her as long as she was left feeling ‘broken?’ And what if he’d been a Black man? Or a poor, fat balding one wearing a stained wifebeater and ill-fitting jeans?”

My conclusion: I think not.

And, I’ll be the first to admit it; that would be wrong. A character, a person—possibly even CASEY AFFLECK himself—can make an egregious mistake and still merit forgiveness. The caveat is that she or he must do something, i.e. make a genuine actual effort, in order to earn that forgiveness, even if it’s difficult. Even if it hurts…that is, unless he’s straight, white, middle class and Casey Affleck, in which case, forget amends. By all means let him continue to be a jerkwad to all those he’s hurt, and hey, while he’s at it, why not turn his nephew into one, too? Well, that’s what MANCHESTER would have us believe.

For 2+ hours we must endure Chandler’s extended pity party, complete with mawkish orchestral score to remind us of his perpetual inner turmoil—“Oh, Cruel World, you’re tearing me apart!!!!—yet what does he ever do to earn our sympathy? What does he do to make any kind of amends? Punish himself by living a self-imposed monastic lifestyle, taking a purportedly “beneath him” janitorial position? What purpose does that serve beyond offering him some misguided sense of martyrdom? Oh, right, I forgot, it doesn’t matter. The world revolves only around his needs.

Call me pedestrian if you will, assume me incapable of recognizing the layered sensitivity of Affleck’s mind-blowing performance and Lonergan’s brilliant, insightful writing, but all I saw was YET ANOTHER SOB STORY about yet another privileged white manbaby who identifies as a victim, and thus assumes the world owes him…what? The world perhaps? Or, at the very least, an Oscar.

I probably sound angry and won’t deny that I am. Of all the reviews I read—most, inevitably, written by males—little to nothing was mentioned about gender. Bad enough this film doesn’t pass the ABSURDLY LOW STANDARDS OF THE BECHDEL TEST, but far worse, it embodies the most pervasive form of sexism troubling the film industry today: Manchester pardons, if not aggrandizes, bad male behavior while resigning its females to the limited patriarchal roles of crying, nurturing and providing sex—and to what end? Presumably so we can pity the poor fellow.

Well, boo-effin’-hoo, Lee Chandlers of the world. Grow up and take some responsibility the way society insists the rest of us must.

On the flipside, kudos to MIKE WHITE for BRAD’S STATUS, likewise filled with a nauseating dose of privileged white guy whining, yet paired with a redeeming helping of context by the end of the second act courtesy of a female character who actually calls him out. And, go figure, it even passes the Bechdel Test—coincidence or simple logic? You be the judge.

Next Up: The Importance of Feminist-Friendly Male-Driven Films




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