Sunday, March 1, 2015

Boyhood Review (spoilers)

I've been working my way through the Oscar nominees for Best Picture these past few weeks. Last night came the turn of Boyhood, Richard Linklater's drama about growing up which was filmed over the course of twelve years. It begins with a boy of six and ends with the same boy at eighteen. In between we are treated to a two-and-a-half-hour version of these twelve years, during which the boy's single mother begins and ends some very bad relationships, while his biological father shows up on screen sporadically for some bonding time. The boy himself passes through some of the stages of childhood, like moving house and beginning at a new school and getting bullied and getting dodgy hair cuts.

If this all sounds a bit mundane then, well, it is. I will lay my cards on the table immediately and say that I did not enjoy this film. Its novel technique masks fundamental flaws, and it will almost certainly only be remembered for its twelve year production than for its interesting characters and ideas.

The boy of Boyhood is entirely unrelatable. Not once does he cry, he barely laughs, and seems to have nothing of that childhood innocence and vulnerability that quickly deserts us. In Linklater's version of boyhood, boy's don't cry. How utterly extraordinary and silly. One of the only times we see a reaction from Mason (the boy) is when his step-father forces him to get his hair cut. Indeed Mason's hair is probably his most interesting characteristic; it seems to be the only thing about him that has personality and life.

He says very little throughout the film, and when he does say something Linklater's dialogue is so contrived and bland that it is almost impossible for me, having just seen the film, to quote a single sentence of Mason's, or to tell you what Mason thinks about anything. Does he love his mother? I don't know. Nobody knows. Does he have a good relationship with his older sister? We can't say. What about his biological father? Again, we're given nothing really concrete. Does he have any friends, or childhood sweethearts? It would appear not.

Of course Mason's childhood wasn't exactly ideal. His mother is pathologically drawn to alcoholic men. This, at least, should make for interesting drama, but the relationship between mother and alcoholic man is given no air time, so the whole episode feels like a box for Linklater to tick rather than a genuine experience in Mason's life that requires exploration and reflection. Mason asks no questions about why his step-father does what he does. He shows no defiance, no hurt, no pain. We are left to think that growing up with an abusive step-father is a minor inconvenience. Nor do we see any confrontation between Mason's real father and his horrible step-fathers. Surely his father would hear about what was happening to his children and ex-wife? A dramatic punch up between the two fathers would have been silly, but at least it would have demonstrated that someone cared about something that happened.

Yet Linklater quickly moves us from one moment in Mason's life to the next, and there is no real sense that any of the previous moments matter, or have any relation to the present moment. This gets to the heart of the films ideology, which is revealed by an attractive girl who Mason meets ON HIS FIRST DAY OF COLLEGE. Come on. Up to this point, the film was at least plausible in the sense that it was as mundane of most of life. But on Mason's first day of college he discovers that his roomie is a quirky guy with big hair and a love of adventure. Within two minutes Mason is invited to go camping with this guy, his girlfriend, and their friend. (Why was this friend going in the first place? Talk about your third wheel.) It just so happens that the friend is an attractive girl. Because life is just that kind. (This reminded me of the end of (500) Days of Summer, when Gordon-Levitt manages to get over his relationship with Summer by meeting an attractive girl called Autumn. Really.) Mason is also given a pot cookie, just to complete his college experience.

Anyway, the film ends with this random girl telling Mason her philosophy on life, in what feels like a prequel to Linklater's Before Sunrise. She says that while most people go on about "seizing the moment," what really matters is that the moment seizes us. Mason adds to this by saying something to the effect of "all there is is now" or something like that. To get theological for one moment, Walter Brueggemann calls this the "eternal now." This is the philosophy of empires, who cannot imagine a future that is radically different from the present and who ignore the lessons of history. In other terms, this is the philosophy of a particularly western mind, a mind which thinks that the present is all that matters because the present is the time of consumption. This "letting the moment seize us" philosophy is all well and good when you're on a picturesque hill top conversing with a pretty lady. Who wouldn't want such a moment to seize them? But what will Mason do when the moments turn against him? What will he do when moments of sickness come? Linklater had this kid for twelve years, but he never gave him agency. That is to say, he never turned him into a person who could act as a moral agent. Will he act with virtue or vice? We don't know.

What we do know is that Mason's father claims to have paid no attention to Mason's soul. This is revealed during the films one and only treatment of Christianity (one would have thought it would have come up more, especially in Texas). Mason goes to his step-mother's (?) parents house. They are simple country folk, and they give Mason a bible and a gun for his birthday, which is pretty funny. Mason asks his father if he was baptised, and his father laughs at the thought, telling Mason that he couldn't have cared less about his son's soul. The same could be said of Linklater, who pays no attention to any religious or moral questions which Mason may or may not have had. Is Mason's mother an atheist? If so this would have been an interesting avenue to explore, and surely Mason would have wondered at an early age why other children prayed and went to church and he didn't. Princeses Rojas gives us a brief and wonderful scene involving a child of atheist parents conversing with a child of Evangelical parents. Boyhood gives us nothing of the sort. No interesting interactions, no conflicting worldviews, no genuine difference. Linklater´s world is the worst form of the liberal dream, where the only real tension is if we will get what we want and become whatever we want to become.

Perhaps it´s better he kept it this neat and tidy, because his one foray into foreign territory in the form of a Latino tradesman was a disaster. While working on the pipes around Mason´s house, unnamed Latino is told my Mason´s mother that he is smart and that he should go to night classes. That´s it. A passing remark. Years later, unnamed Latino meets Mason and his family in a restaurant. He approaches Mason´s mother and tells her that she changed his life! He is now assistant manager of the restaurant and about to get a degree. And to think that Linklater had about six years to rethink this plot point. I just can´t believe that any intelligent person would have no misgivings about the white woman saves poor Latino trope that Linklater dishes out.

In the end, I was unmoved by this movie. My reaction to it mirrored Mason´s reaction to life. Indifference. And apart from a couple of nice shots (one was, I think, in Austin, when Mason went to a concert with his girlfriend) there wasn´t even much that was aesthetically pleasing about the film. I would be lying if I said this didn´t make me think of the condition of my own soul, since so many who have seen this film have enjoyed it and found in it a wonderful portrayal of childhood. The only conclusion I can draw for now is the well worn cliche that the same thing can be seen in entirely different ways. Except for that dress, which is blue and black.

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