music friday: fifth harmony, reflection
they shoot pictures, don't they, 2015 edition

oscar run 5: boyhood (richard linklater, 2014)

(Nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Editing, and Best Supporting Actor/Actress.)

Film critics as a rule love innovation, love what is different, love what breaks them out of the lull of the norm. They watch lots of movies, and most of them blend together. So when a movie comes along that isn’t like every other movie, it gets a bit of extra attention from critics who, at the very least, are just glad they aren’t watching something they’ve seen a thousand times before.

As everyone knows by now, Boyhood was made under different circumstances than most other films. It’s a difference you can see on the screen. So right away, Richard Linklater gets brownie points for what seems unique (if reminiscent of the “Up” series). Similarly, Patricia Arquette’s performance is lauded, in part, because she allows herself to get older over the course of the making of the film. Ethan Hawke gets little attention for the same “trick”, mainly because the aging of male actors is more acceptable to the mainstream.

I do not hold these points against Linklater. I try not to let them be praiseworthy in themselves, though … what I want to know is if I like Boyhood, if I like Arquette’s performance, and within that context, the innovative strategies Linklater adopts matter.

Certainly, though, there is no denying the pleasures of seeing the characters (and the times being represented) grow over time in a “natural” way, rather than by the use of makeup, changing actors, CGI, or any of the other ways a movie can emulate a time and place. And I do think Linklater deserves praise for creating a project that could have gone wrong in so many ways. (Of the many anecdotes told about the making of the film, my favorite is that Linklater told Hawke that if the director died, the actor had to promise to finish the film.)

Despite all of this, though, the things I liked best about Boyhood weren’t particularly “new”. I liked Boyhood because it often played very much like the best of what Linklater has given us in the past. Linklater often lets his characters talk. He loves words, conversation, he is not afraid to just give us people talking to each other, and Linklater (and his actors, who are often closely involved in the creation of those words) manages to make talking fascinating in the way it reveals the character of the speakers. Granted, some viewers are bored by this, wondering when something is going to “happen”, fretting about the absence of any obvious narrative thrust. (I tend to be overly obsessive about narrative, myself, yet Linklater won me over long ago.) This is clearest in the “Before” series, and in Dazed and Confused, but also in Waking Life (where the “Before” characters have a cameo), and Slacker, which in retrospect is almost a manifesto about the kinds of movies Linklater will make. (Of course, he also slips in the occasional School of Rock or Bad News Bears.)

The structure of Boyhood doesn’t exactly lead to a narrative progression, but watching the characters age serves as a stand-in for that kind of forward movement. It’s not that specific events happen that move the story forward, it’s that the characters change before our eyes. Mason grows from 6 to 18, we know it’s the same actor, and in the later scenes, recognizing how the actors have changed along with the characters they play, we see a long-form story emerging.

There is something narrow about the world we see in Boyhood, reflected in part by the title. This isn’t the story of Mason’s older sister, Samantha, even though she is ever-present. It’s not that Linklater doesn’t know what to do with Samantha. It’s more than she isn’t quite important enough. I could take this too far … for all of her reported wavering interest in the project, Lorelei Linklater does well in the part. But there is never a point when she is the center of the story … it’s called Boyhood for a reason. The evolution of Mason, and the slower evolution of Mason Sr., offers interesting insight into the lives of American men. Ethan Hawke’s Dad, in particular, is allowed to mature just enough to turn an amiable guy who refuses to grow up into someone who finally seems to accept the passage of time.

Patricia Arquette’s Mom, Olivia, doesn’t get the same kind of growth. (As mentioned, neither does Samantha, but her character is more marginalized from the beginning.) In an excellent piece that turned up in the Wall Street Journal, Sharon Marcus and Anne Skomorowsky point out the importance of Olivia’s final scene, during what she calls “the worst day of my life”:

You know what I'm realizing? My life is just going to go. Like that. This series of milestones. Getting married. Having kids. Getting divorced. The time that we thought you were dyslexic. When I taught you how to ride a bike. Getting divorced... again. Getting my masters degree. Finally getting the job I wanted. Sending Samantha off to college. Sending you off to college. You know what's next? Huh? It's my fucking funeral! … I just thought there would be more.

Marcus and Skomorowsky note that Olivia is Samantha’s role model: “Samantha’s mother presents care-taking and personal sacrifice as the deepest, worthiest sources of pleasure, but the film also suggests that they can be deeply unsatisfying.” Arquette is getting deserved raves for her performance, but those raves aren’t directed towards scenes where we see her at work as a teacher. It’s the emotionally damaged parts of Olivia that give Arquette the best chance at an Oscar.

One could argue that this shows us the reality of middle-age for women in America (at least in the movies), and we feel great sympathy for Arquette/Olivia. But it is nonetheless a restrictive “reality” that bodes poorly for Samantha’s future. Meanwhile, when we last see Mason, he is on psychedelics and offering the final word on the film: it is always right now. 9/10. For a companion piece, check out the “Before” trilogy, or the ongoing “Up” series.


Sister Sue

I really enjoyed this film. I'm a fan of Arquette and would watch her in just about anything. Heck, I'm thinking of watching a CSI show for the first time simply because that's what she's doing now.

I decided to watch this movie because Arquette is in it and because I thought anyone who put that many years into making a film deserved to have it seen. I was not disappointed.

Steven Rubio

A lot has been made of the physical changes of the actors over the years. Ethan Hawke is pretty much the same stunner he's always been. Patricia Arquette has changed more, but truth be told, and I know this is supposed to be irrelevant, but I think she's better looking than ever. She was one of my favorite parts of Boardwalk Empire when she started appearing on that show. It's funny, Robin can tell you, one of my earliest crushes was Rosanna Arquette ... I wouldn't have known back then that her sister would be the real acting champ of the family. Although that whole family is pretty good ... Charley Weaver must be pretty proud of his grand-kids.


Also the Apu trilogy, and The 400 Blows. Loved this like most everyone else (more so the second time around), lots of discussion on the message board. One point of contention: the scene where the guy thanks Arquette for turning around his life ("You should listen your mom"). A few ILX people thought it was contrived, unnecessary, etc., and also that at no point in the scene did she actually remember who the guy was. I thought it was a crucial scene--that she knew who he was, and that it was one of the few times in the film where anybody actually showed her any gratitude.

Steven Rubio

Good examples of "continuing" movie series. I was going to add the scene near the end when HawkeDad tells ArquetteMom that she did a good job with the kids as an example of gratitude. She takes it as a compliment, but I thought the main point was his realizing his own shortcomings. That is, it was about the guy, not the gal.


That scene too, yes--that's the other time in the film someone verbalizes some appreciation (however ambiguous the meaning may have been). I loved the moment in the same scene where Hawke pretended he didn't have any money.

Charlie Bertsch

I had heard from a number of critics and friends before seeing Boyhood that it seemed more like a film for parents than for their children. And seeing it twice in matinees here in Tucson, when the audience is bound to be gray-haired reinforced the sense that it might be more a "looking back" film than one suited for those who still see the majority of life ahead of them.

But then I assigned it to my class last semester and again this semester. In the latter instance, we were able to watch it in the classroom, so I could see students' reaction first hand in addition to hearing their comments afterwards. Being more or less the same age as Mason Jr., most of them identified strongly with his story. I don't want to overgeneralize on the basis of such a small sample size, naturally, yet I did have the sense that the Boyhood can work just as well for young people as for parents and grandparents.

I understand the critique in the WSJ piece and agree with it up to a point, but also think it is a little unfair to force the film into the framework of a larger point about male and female roles in our society. For one thing, we see no evidence whatsoever that Sam is interested in following in Olivia's footsteps as someone who cares for others. Her last scene is in the restaurant and she seems quite unimpressed with the man thanking her mom and annoyed that she will have to do her own laundry. And then there's the matter of Olivia's final "speech". Many of my students, having recently left home themselves, recognized it as an attempt to manipulate Mason Jr. on his way out the door, to assert parental ownership of him even once he would ostensibly be on his own. In other words, they didn't see it as a soliloquy lamenting her fate but a rhetorical gambit. Being a parent of a teenager, I want to see it as the former, but found their arguments very convincing. At the very least, I think it makes sense to try seeing her words as some combination of these two possibilities.

Steven Rubio

That's a great idea, using the film in the classroom. I hadn't heard that "more for parents" claim before. Yes, a combination of possibilities ... she could easily have been hoping to manipulate her son, and still be feeling crappy about where her life was headed.

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