[2014] Boyhood

Hey loyal reader(s)! Back after a long hiatus – school beckons. I’ve got some free time now and I’ll try to post 2-3 a week. Let’s start with 2014’s Boyhood, a movie some consider “runner-up” to 2014’s eventual winner Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). I’ve had a fair few conversations where the main point of contention was anything less than a win for Boyhood would be (before the Awards)  or was (after) a direct insult to the novelty of longitudinal film making. That said, it is a good exercise to begin to understand the cagey genius of Boyhood. Although an entertaining film to say the least, levels of inauthenticity continue to plague how I remember the film.

The gist of the film is that the events play out in a splice version of real-time. Director Richard Linklater managed to keep a cast and production team together over the course of over a decade to semi-script evolving relationships as the characters and the world grows up and shifts semi-expectedly. Young Ellan Coltrane plays a boy on-screen, but he’s also just a boy off-screen. His acting is himself playing a version of himself. There’s something exploitative but heartwarming about a boy transitioning to manhood on-screen. The fact that the character develops self-awareness as fast as the actor does cures what could be thought of as a diorama rather than drama. The young boy is as authentic as he is allowed to be, two steps from real life, and three from the generation about whom he is supposedly documenting. But it doesn’t change the fact that the rest of the world plays house while the director tinkers over missed connections and predictable abusiveness.

The story, while heartwarming on the surface, feels like an amalgam of expected human vices sewn together for clarity’s sake – in realty, no life is a neat set of explanatory variables converging along a path. There is no line of best fit and statistics be damned at the expense of waking up on every other morning and breathing in the fresh air for just five minutes. Where are these moments in Boyhood? Are we just expected to believe that the only important or life-changing parts of the boy’s life are those of drama or coincidence? The dilemma of documenting life in so many layers is the nuance takes a backseat for storytelling clarity. For a movie that pitter-patters discussing a life “worth living” from “moment to moment” feels much like the embodiment of a home-schooled child tattooing “Carpe Diem” on the inside of her arm as she watches Boyhood from the couch in her basement. Boyhood, for what it’s worth, lets this girl know that it’s okay to just be. But Boyhood also attempts to capitalize on the serial failure of the human spirit. It’s all a little too real –  and that’s what makes Boyhood triumph beyond the long shadow of exploitation and questionable humanistic storytelling.

The story especially resonates with the generation of young Millennials who remember attending the Harry Potter premiers and who remember friendship BFE (Before Facebook) and who grew up idolizing adults only to realize that failure is not unique to the kid who consistently trips and falls when it’s time to run. This is particularly evident in how Patricia Arquette’s character is written. (Ms. Arquette won a Best Actress award for her work as the young boy’s mother). She plays the foil eloquently, but her sadness is acted (well): there is no self-discovery for Arquette as there is for Colland and so every time she marries or devolves into pity, the close reader knows that the action is a plot device designed to test in someway the resolve of the young boy. Patricia Arquette is a grown-up, adult woman playing a proxy of a grown-up, adult woman and it shows: the film isn’t called Womanhood as it were. The lesson learned here is that there is no way to approximate “real” life, but Boyhood does as good of a job as any film that has tried.

As I haven’t seen Birdman yet, I will reserve judgement on whether or not it “deserved” Best Picture according to the thesis of this blog: that the film that wins each year is not necessarily the best technical film of the year, but rather the one that best represents the zeitgeist. That said, with so many Millennials out of the proxy shell of school or university, the pressure begins to approximate real in a way that wasn’t evident before and this film would have a been a good choice and maybe THE choice had the voters been just a little younger. The other films nominated (outside Boyhood and Birdman) are all fine films: celebrating the military, or Civil Rights, or semi-biographical entries into the world of positive and purposeful recreation. Boyhood would not have worked had there not been the anonymity of a young boy and his mother.

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