Review by Barbara R. Nicolosi.
Written and Directed By Richard Linklater; Starring Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke and Ellar Coltrane; Rated R for language.
The consensus of movie critics today isn’t always, or even generally, a reliable barometer by which to gage the quality of movies. The truth about a movie’s merits or problems seems sadly impossible to just state in a climate where everything is politics. But we still need to pay attention when people who are serious about movies start to coalesce around a project with a vocabulary that is straining to find new ways to express excellence.
The word we use in Hollywood for a visual story that is very good is “fresh.” That is because bad projects tend to make the same clichéd mistakes, whereas when something is beautiful, it always feels unique. With a stunningly rare 99% “fresh” rating at the critical compendium site RottenTomatoes.com, the words the critics are gushing about Boyhood are hard to wave off as just more politics. It’s “audacious.” “A masterpiece.” “Engrossing.” “Ground-breaking.” “Well-crafted.” “Bold.” “Amazing.” “Compelling.” ”Exhilerating.” “Observant.” “Ingenious.” My favorite review is from Steven Rea of The Philadelphia Inquirer who wrote of the piece, “Is it dumb to say, “Wow?” I don’t care. Wow.”
With last year’s Best Picture contenders 12 Years a Slave and Gravity each only garnering a 97% fresh rating, Boyhood has secured a place in this year’s Oscar race and in all the confabulations in the world’s cultural hubs as award seasons gets underway. It’s so rare when I can say it, but the movie deserves all the accolades. As an expertly crafted, weighty artistic brooding over an urgent human problem, it should be of great interest to the Church. But sadly, it won’t get even a fraction of the attention from Christians that was lavished on the year’s mostly sorry faith-based projects like Son of God and God is Not Dead. Still, aware that lots of fellow Christians will hate Boyhood and even think it is bad for the culture, I soldier on.
As many of the critics are noting, Boyhood is not a conventional three-act narrative. It doesn’t have a clear and compelling introduction of the protagonist in which we are able to discern and sign on to his wants and needs. It doesn’t have an inciting incident that launches an internal and external journey of transformation. It doesn’t have irrevocable turning points where they should be, and a final, “puts the whole piece together” denouement. It stops more than ends in the same “when exactly did that boy become a man?” way in which transitions happen in real life. The critics are all using the term “experiment” to refer to the way the project unfolds and, because there is no way that the production process here is going to become standard movie fare, the word experiment fits. But, unlike the weird, tedious, often incoherent and self-important Tree of Life, Boyhood is a cinematic experiment that works.
In case you are the only one in Jerusalem who doesn’t know what went on in the making of Boyhood, Time’s interview with the writer/director and cast will get you up to speed. http://time.com/2974681/boyhood-movie-making-of-richard-linklater/
The investors/producers of the project at IFC have also created a video about the twelve year shoot here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HjmUJQg2eUw
The idea was to drop in and out of a boy’s life in contemporary America from the age of six until eighteen using the same cast of actors for the duration. As a piece of cinema, this provides most of the project’s spectacle. It is simply fascinating to watch a character and his family age in front of us, literally. Again, can’t imagine we’ll ever see it again. But it isn’t just a gimmick. It provides an intimacy with the characters that few movies achieve.
Through a Gospel lens, what makes Boyhood so important is that it tracks how a human person is basically lost through the lack of a serious and intelligent formation in his youth. As Aristotle noted in his Nicomachean Ethics, a happy life comes down to habits of virtue instilled in youth. Boyhood lurches through the journey of a young person who is given little if any formation in virtue. Because of his parents’ fundamental superficiality, and its resulting selfishness and immaturity, they have no habits of virtue to hand on to him. The concepts of justice, prudence, moderation and fortitude are never even offered to the child, never mind faith, hope and charity. He is raised without any measure of meaning beyond his own inclinations – in a truly, thoroughly, tragically, unexamined life. And, at the end, as the now man trips on mushrooms and exchanges banalities with another equally lost Millennial, we know that, probably, the man will live a life as Plato said, “not worth living” in the imprisonment and misery of narcissism. The cake is baked.
For me, the horrible, wonderful fascination of Boyhood, is knowing that the journey it tracks is not uncommon. In fact, the childhood it depicts is probably much less traumatic than that lived by lots of kids today. Still, this movie is a profile of the bulk of the Millennial generation. If you want to understand our crop of young adults with their blank stares, their conflict aversion, their utter disengagement from history or heritage, and their sad dreams scuttled early on by the absence of self-discipline, you need to see Boyhood.
The relatable villains here, of course, are the parents, played perfectly by Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette who both deserve lots of awards for their efforts. It is hard to imagine the acting challenge of keeping a character developing over a twelve-year arc. The characters they play are children of the Sexual Revolution. They have been ravaged by it’s lies and have emerged without any core of faith or meaning. Their lives are sad and almost inhuman as they try to scrap together some kind of meaning against all the squandering odds of their own narcissism and immaturity. Of course, they have little to offer their son, and he pays mightily because of their dysfunction. Over and over as the young boy is yanked around because of his parent’s bad choices and especially bad relationships, the audience of this piece says to themselves, “This is no way to raise a man.”
The film has a delightfully subversive, conservative agenda too! Ethan Hawke’s character, as the boy’s father, spends most of the movie wistfully picking out bad songs on his guitar. He’s a mess of a man and also – wait for it – a huge Obama supporter! The movie has a delicious little scene in which the character steals McCain lawn signs in between prating about how wonderful Obama is. Then, another blond female Obama supporter is shown to be ridiculous as she preens like a five year old about how much she loves Obama and wants to kiss him. It made me smug that the losers in the movie are liberals.
Added to that, the movie does allow Hawke’s character to finally find some maturity – when he marries a serious, Bible Christian. The Christian in-laws, with their guns and Bibles, are shown as being unhip, but still good. The movie gives the sense that they have stronger sense of identity and meaning, and that they would be the ones to call when tragedy happens.
There is lot to say about the meticulous craft of the piece. The editing and transitions are stunning. The dialogue is so very, very good. The cinematography and composition are just brilliant in places. The directorial vision is tight. The project is one of those rarely well-crafted projects that demonstrate that cinema is a great, great art form.
This is not a movie for everybody. Lots of Christians, sadly will not like it because the language is crass, and because it isn’t light and cheerful with a happy inspirational ending. If you like your culture banal, this is not the movie for you. Boyhood is not stupid or easy. It isn’t pretty or cute. But my feeling is it is very beautiful if we understand beauty as something whole, something harmonious and something that radiates a vital universal truth.