Manchester by the Sea has a Lee problem

Note: this post contains spoilers for both Manchester by the Sea and Neon Genesis Evangelion/The End of Evangelion.


I’m a little surprised at the unanimous praise for Manchester by the Sea. Maybe I shouldn’t be, maybe it’s just me being out of touch with the general mindset of film critics and connoisseurs. But I can’t help it; I felt nothing but contempt while watching this movie.

When picked apart, the various elements of Manchester by the Sea are all adequate. The direction is serviceable, if somewhat uninspired. The acting fits the dour tone but often comes across as intentionally flat to maintain a sense that these are real people, not movie characters. By remaining down-to-earth the film has an underlying feeling of wheel-spinning that I’ve felt while visiting family in similar Massachusetts towns over the years. Yet all of this comes together in service of what I found to be an absolutely miserable experience that goes too far in its adherence to reality. I often see a consensus in popular culture that realism results in inherently more relatable narratives but I think that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Characters are, by definition, not real people. Real people are boring and inconsequential. It’s human nature to worry more about our own trials and tribulations than those of people we hardly know. Thus, when we perceive a character as being too realistic we’re more likely to question why we should care about them in the first place.

This is what happened with me and Lee Chandler, the main character of Manchester by the Sea. The first sequence of the movie has him going through his daily life as a loner plumber. He’s wholly unpleasant, getting into bar fights and mildly losing his temper with a client (although somewhat justifiably I must admit). We’re given no reason to like or care about Lee because there’s nothing noteworthy about him other than being generally unhappy and apathetic at all times.

Once we move past the first act of the movie without a clear idea of what makes Lee’s story worth telling it becomes increasingly difficult to engage with him. Sure, it’s sad when his kids die at the midpoint but it evokes the same feeling of disconnected empathy I’d have when reading about an identical event in the news. I would feel bad for those affected but my emotional engagement would end there. Lee doesn’t have the privilege of being a real person though so any emotional response backfires into resentment on the part of the film when it starts to feel oppressively manipulative.

I don’t mind when a story makes me feel uncomfortable. I actually think it’s one of the most powerful emotions you can draw out of a viewer when utilized correctly. Take the first scene of The End of Evangelion for example. After spending twenty-six episodes of the preceding anime series becoming deeply attached to the characters and their interpersonal relationships, the movie starts off with the protagonist Shinji Ikari masturbating over the exposed breasts of his peer and fellow EVA pilot Asuka Langley Soryu.

Oh, did I mention that she’s hospitalized in a comatose state Did I mention these are fourteen-year-old kids? Did I mention this is all happening on the crux of the literal end of the world? You get the point.

That scene was one of the most strikingly uncomfortable moments I’ve ever experienced in a story and the final shot of Shinji’s semen-covered hand above Asuka’s naked body in the background only cements it further (no pun intended). We understand why it happens though: these kids are psychologically traumatized due to their troubled pasts and recent burdens of being the Earth’s last line of defense which they are in no way mentally equipped for (they’re fourteen!). Shinji’s emotional repression combined with his view of Asuka as a sexual figure mix in the most unnerving of ways and, well, you get what you get.

I could ramble about Evangelion for ages (and I plan on doing so in another piece soon) but the point here is that the way it makes the viewer feel uncomfortable works because we’ve bought into the characters by that point. In Manchester, Lee is a blank slate of unhappiness so when he’s acting out due to his sorrow it becomes emotionally grating to watch. While witnessing Lee become unhinged through his numerous drunken bar fights, window-punching fits and suicide attempt using a police officer’s gun, all I could think was how he was the most uninterestingly unlikable average Joe out there. There’s nothing extraordinary or special about why he’s unlikable, he just is.

By the end of the film it feels like Lee has barely moved the needle on growing as a person. He simply seems like a guy that things have happened to rather than someone who experienced change through the events that transpired (Heck, most of the tragedy surrounding Lee happened in his past!). At this point I was mentally checked out of the movie though. I just didn’t care. Lee was indistinguishable from the guy sitting halfway down the row in my theater as I questioned why we needed a film exceeding two hours to tell his boring, normal story of pain and misery.

At least that’s what I took away from the movie. One look at the film’s 97% Rotten Tomatoes score and you’ll see I’m in the vast minority on this. Thus, I’d love to hear the perspectives of those who enjoyed the film and the character of Lee! I encourage you to leave your perspective in the comments and I’ll reply as soon as I can.


15 thoughts on “Manchester by the Sea has a Lee problem

  1. Ron Murphy

    Very well done. I have not seen the film as yet and from what you wrote, I will have to see it by myself because it would definitely not be my wife’s cup of tea. A well written and contrarian piece, thought provoking

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great review of yours, thanks. I am also ambivalent about this film. Sure the acting by Affleck is award-worthy and the filming is superb. But the ‘fight your inner demons’ is cliched and his redemption through family re-connection was predictable from the reading of the will onwards. The flashbacking was frenetic and the finale trite. A bit over-hyped I think.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, the editing of the flashbacks was a real sore spot for me. It was hard to keep up with where in time the story was taking place because there were no immediate indicators that we were viewing the past. Unless this is an important element to the way you’re telling your story it should always be clear when and where we are at all times.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I was surprised (pelasently) to happen across this article. I’ve recently been rewatching Evangelion, in an effort to introduce some friends to it, and had just seen Manchester by the sea with some of these compatriots. I think the comparison is a good one, as both are about very melancholic people with a generally limited spectrum of emotion, yet one feels so much more alive than the other – maybe it’s the imagination, or maybe it’s the fact that the characters can have meaningful victories to help offset their setbacks, but Eva handles its sadness so much better. This is literally the exact thing I wanted to read (something combining my love of anime with my frustration over this film). Super well written and full of great points.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! 😀 I was hoping that comparison would pay off with somebody, even though the general audience for this article would probably not be people who know too much about anime. Totally agree with your points though. Because we’ve grown to care about Eva’s characters more their victories and failures pay off in bigger ways and we can understand when they act out undesirably. Manchester fails in that regard.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Whoa! Spoiler tags, dude. Was spoiled on both this AND End of Eva! Ah well. Really enjoyed this piece. Your writing alone makes your opinion trustworthy. Why do you believe Manchester By The Sea is as highly rated as it is?


    1. Sorry for that! I generally don’t put spoiler tags on my articles but in retrospect I should add them for Eva here as it’s not assumed by the article title. I will say that I didn’t spoil Eva as much as you might think. That’s a small moment in a much broader narrative (I actually knew that the first time I watched Eva and it didn’t impact my enjoyment of the series, not that I mean to actively spoil it for anyone else). You should still watch the series, it holds up to this day. And again, it was really a small spoiler in the grand scheme of things.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. As to why I believe Manchester gets praise… well my response is pretty cynical. The director is acclaimed for one and it’s the type of melodrama that appeals to critics. It’s competently put together and the acting is seen as great (I think it’s no more than decent personally). But honestly it’s one of those cases where I’m baffled by how somebody could watch this movie and enjoy it.

        Also, one last comment on spoilers on my blog: I’ve tried to become more wary of warning people about them where necessary but I also don’t want to hold back on them entirely because they’re often needed to make a distinct point.


      2. I totally understand, dude. I usually just put a (Spoilers) thing in the post title whenever I feel something comes up that could ruin people’s expectations going into a certain thing. Posting spoilers to better an argument is a wonderfully enticing feeling.

        Liked by 1 person

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