I begin this column with the fear that the above headline has not yet cost me a sufficient number of friendships. Let’s see if this next sentence does the trick. I do not merely believe that Boyhood deserved to lose the Best Picture Oscar because it wasn’t the strongest of this year’s nominees; I believe that the film didn’t even deserve a nomination, because it is one of the weakest Best Picture nominees released in my lifetime. Sure, it’s a cut above bottom-feeder noms like The Blind Side, but ranking just ahead of Tim McGraw’s cinematic magnum opus is an uber-dubious honor at best.
If you’re one of the two readers who have successfully conquered the urge to rage-quit my first Loser City article, I thank you. I also apologize. I know that Boyhood sent many of my fellow movie-lovers out of the theatre wrapped in an effulgent, post-baptismal glow. I know how badly we movie-lovers want that glow. And I know how hard it is to get. And I know that, were I a Boyhood devotee, this article would not be all that enjoyable for me to read.
All that said, I do feel like the nasty business in front of me is necessary. The religious fervor around this mediocre-at-best film has gotten so out of control that I feel the need to say something. Everyone else can sound the triumph-trumpets as loud as they want; but right now, I feel it is my critic’s duty to pick up a different instrument and sound a discordant buzz.
So that’s what you can expect over the next 800-or-so words: one misanthropic, kazoo-bearing Jew, sounding loudly a rebel tune.
Perhaps the best way to explain Boyhood’s numerous weaknesses is to go all Karl Rove on its scrawny ass—in other words, to go after the films supposed strengths. According to the film’s many fans, one of those strengths is the film’s unique shooting schedule, which allowed director Richard Linklater to track the titular kiddo’s maturation in real time. Vulture’s irreplaceable David Edelstein sums up this viewpoint nicely:
“Time in cinema is relative and easily fudged, but in Boyhood, the realness of time is central —and, in context, uncanny. You go, ‘Whoa, he shot up!’ And you might find yourself thinking, as I did, as “Oh, right, this is how it was when I was young and every atom was in flux, when I felt something new every second of every day and didn’t have a name for it.”
Edelstein is right to note the presence of the “Whoa, he shot up!” phenomenon, but I’m not exactly sure what makes that phenomenon inherently praiseworthy. Sure, Ellar Coltrane’s Mason gets taller and weirder and slightly wiser before our eyes, but so has every fascinating person from Michael Apted’s unsurpassable Up series. And, hell, so did Harry Potter and Katniss Everdeen; in an era when the Hollywood money trees are planted at the juncture of franchise filmmaking and young-gun headliners, on-screen aging isn’t a rare amazement but a routine process. In a world where “Whoa, he shot up!” is the norm, Boyhood’s watch-’em-grow gimmickry is nothing special.
Before moving on, I should say that there’s another defense of Boyhood’s 12-year shooting schedule—one that has less to do with Linklater’s singular method of gathering the footage and more to do with his unique way of splicing it together. These people say that Boyhood’s special contribution to time-lapse cinema has less to do with “Whoa, he shot up!” and more to do with “Whoa! He shot up fast!” The A.V. Club’s A.A. Dowd subscribes to this view, claiming that one of the most impressive things about the picture is how “it crams an entire, real adolescence into one three-hour narrative.”
While I concur that the film’s three hours contain cramming aplenty, I can’t bring myself to see that as a positive the way that Dowd does. Yes, Linklater does take the narrative basics of the aforementioned coming-of-age series and squeeze them into one film, zooming through Mason’s munchkindom, pre-pubescence, and adolescence in less time than Peter Jackson needed to slingshot his fellowship past the Mines of Moria. Yes, that makes Linklater the Ricky Bobby of real-time on-screen aging. But so what? As even Dowd’s verb choice unwittingly admits, Boyhood’s attempt to cram all of Young American Male Experience onto the screen in less than three hours leads to a rotten paradox of a viewing experience; the film is at once overstuffed and unsatisfying. No sooner has it built a half-satisfactory plot-arc—a blended family, a messy high school relationship—than it disassembles it to erect the next one. Boyhood, so renowned for its deliberate pacing, is about as jittery as your average action picture. A movie that spends maybe five minutes on the cardboard-cutout introduction of a new stepfather can hardly be called “patient”—a word that is not, by the way, synonymous with “long.”
Many of the film’s supporters, not surprisingly, have a different opinion. For them, the lack of fully developed story arcs is an integral part of Boyhood‘s overall goal. As a pithy friend of mine put it, “the movie’s not about the moments we seize, but about the moments that seize us.” Most Boyhood devotees I’ve encountered, on-line and in person, defend this view. According to them, by dismissing traditional constraints of narrative and pacing, Linklater has created a film about life’s disorderly Little Moments—the ones that, with near-imperceptible subtlety, add shade and color to our shaky self-portraits. This idea is certainly intriguing, but it runs up against a big problem: by definition, the near-imperceptible is nearly impossible to capture. To make a film about the small anti-milestones that shape us in inexplicable ways is a quixotic quest: if the point is that the import of these moments can’t really be captured, then why try to capture them?
Maybe Mason’s life was somehow shaped by going to movie premiere or putting up Obama signs with his dad or doing his Before Sunrise Jr. shtick with his girlfriend. But the nature of said shaping is so opaque, so thoroughly hidden away in the dim darkroom of Mason’s subconscious, that Linklater can’t show us a damn thing about it. As such, much of the movie consists of disconnected Little Moments. And here’s the thing that, above all, has baffled me the most about the positive reactions to Boyhood: for some people, those moments were enough. When I asked people what they liked about the film, I often got a long laundry list like this one: “You know, I think the movie just rang true to what it was like to be a kid and be read to at bedtime and go on a road trip with Dad….” For some people, seeing these small moments blown up onto a big screen induced its own kind of celluloid nirvana.
The most extreme example of this phenomena that I’ve seen occurred when I first saw the picture this summer, at a run-down Odeon in Oxfordshire, England. During the scene in which Mason and his father (Ethan Hawke) leave their tent and pee in the woods, I heard a soft gasp from the man behind me. Turning around, I watched his mood shift from enthusiastic recognition to outright euphoria. As piss hit dirt, this viewer tripped the light fantastic.
At this moment, I couldn’t help but think of these lines from Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, where the Tralfamadorians regard every miniscule action of their human captors with rapturous excitement:
“Billy got off his lounge chair now, went into the bathroom and took a leak. The crowd went wild.”
I don’t know why Boyhood’s seemingly insignificant moments had such an effect on that man or on so many others. To speculate further would be difficult at best and rude at worst. For now, I’ll just express my confusion at the fact that Boyhood somehow managed to turn many of my most trusted friends—however temporarily—into Tralfamadorians.
But hold on. Let’s assume, for argument’s sake, that I’m the alien here. That I’m somehow emotionally deficient. That there’s a part of me that should have profound emotional reactions to these moments, and that said part is somehow missing. Even if that were the case, I’d still take issue with how Boyhood displays its aesthetic of smallness–that is to say, inconsistently.
Sure, it’s got its fair share of pared-down, subtle sequences, but those are paired with bumbling lunges into the realm of melodrama. The great example is the extended sequence where Mason’s mother (Patricia Arquette) marries, endures, and escapes from an abusive second husband (Marco Perella). If the film were truly devoted to the Little Moments, it would let this storyline play out in a series of stinging-shard vignettes—the queasy field trip to the wine-and-spirits-store, the subtle dinner-table humiliations, the shouting match picked up through a distant window. Instead, it gives us scenes of near-operatic, over-the-top intensity: a screaming tyrant of a husband, a weeping martyr of a wife, a handful of shattered objects, a final dramatic escape. This aren’t Little Moments with subtle effects; they’re searing memories that will visibly shape Mason for the rest of his troubled life. There’s something a little disingenuous about a film that wants us to love its lo-fi smallness while still including scenes like the one described above. Boyhood isn’t some brilliant exercise in Cassevetes-esque, tamped-down realism. It’s a show-off dressed in ascetic’s clothes, and I’m happy to say that Oscar saw through the disguise.
I should stop right there. I’ve argued, to the best of my ability, for the ballsy proposition put forth in the article title. The converted have seen the light. The unconvinced will remain unconvinced and will, hopefully, look kindly upon a bitchy dissenter.
But before I go, I do feel compelled to note that Boyhood is not actually an awful film, just a fatally flawed one. The two main things that supposedly make it great—the unconventional shooting process and the unprecedented focus on Little Moments—fall flat. But the film does have its positive aspects. For one thing, Linklater’s music choices are astute, establishing both emotion and era: “Yellow,” for example, conveys the dewy innocence of youth while also locating us firmly in the early-Coldplay days. The cinematography is also appreciably clean and steady; unlike many modern directors, Linklater and co. don’t try to convey “intimacy” by burping the hand-held camera like a baby. (Now is a good time to mention that I actually like a lot of Linklater’s work, and that I hope he returns to the world of the sane very soon.)
But the best things about the picture are undoubtedly the two people playing Mason’s parents. Coltrane is a reasonably good reactor, but these two actors are the ones I walked out thinking about. Hawke is basically playing a sadder, less self-assured version of himself—an amateur acoustic guitar-riff on the idea of Ethan Hawke. He does so with commendable sensitivity. And while Patrica Arquette wasn’t my choice for an Oscar win, she probably did deserve the nomination. Even when she’s required to do some of the film’s more ridiculous dramatic heavy-lifting (but it’s all about the Little Moments, remember?!), her scenes always feel tangibly lived-in. Meting out tired sweetness and fighting back complicated, Oscar-bait-free tears, she takes us gracefully through the story of a woman who is, to paraphrase Philip Larkin, being pushed to the side of her own life. It makes sense that the Academy honored the film Boyhood by honoring her.
But, as this kazoo-bearing Jew has hopefully convinced you, it also makes sense that they chose not to honor it with a Best Picture Oscar.
For some more positive views of Boyhood, you can also check out Nate Abernethy’s original review of the film for us from last year’s SXSW coverage and David Sackllah’s blurb on it for our Best Films of 2014 feature.
Mason Walker is a kazoo-bearing Jew who writes at his blog So Beautiful or So What when he isn’t visiting Loser City.