Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, February 22, 2015

Recent Watches: Boyhood (2014)

Since “Boyhood” is a movie about growing up and making memories, I’ll share an anecdote. About a decade ago, I started my Director Report Card project. Yes, folks, I’ve been at it that long. Anyway, Richard Linklater was on my list at the time. (He’s since fallen off.) I remember looking him up on IMDb and seeing a listing for “Untitled Boyhood Project.” For a long time, I assumed this thing was never going to come out. When “Boyhood” was released, I was surprised by the wave of praise that greeted it. I’ve always been hot-and-cold on Linklater so I went in skeptical. Typically, on my first viewing, I was underwhelmed by “Boyhood.” Yeah, it was good, but I didn’t exactly get what the big deal was. Separated two months from the “Best Movie of the Year” hype, it plays a little better. Does it deserve to win Best Picture? No. But it’s slightly better then my first impression.

One of my remaining issues with “Boyhood,” and many of Linklater’s films in general, is that there’s no real plot. We watch Mason grow up over the course of twelve years, starting at the age of five. The early portion of the film, focused on Mason’s youngest years, works the best for me. We see the kid’s eye perspective on adult problems, glancing at his mom arguing with her boyfriend of the moment. Or when Mason and his sister watch their parents have a spat, dashing all their hopes that mom and dad will ever reunite. We see him working his way for school. One of my favorite moments is, after his mom plucks her kids out of another bad household, she drops Mason off at a new school. All the other kids in the class turn to look at the new kid as he sits down. Mason’s early years are defined by his relationship with his parents and his sisters. He never has a lot of friends. Comprising about the first half-hour, the film captures the spirit of childhood, lazing around and doing nothing all the time and the spectre of adulthood being a far off, ambiguous thing.

As Mason grows into a teenager, “Boyhood” falters for me. In middle school, Mason is hanging out with older kids, talking pussy and swilling beers. The next year, he’s smoking pot and making out with a girl in the back of his friend’s car. During his graduation party, we meet what is supposedly Mason’s best friend. We have to take the movie’s word for it. As far as we know, Mason never has a social life. Friends are the most important thing to a teenager but they don’t rank high in “Boyhood.” One scene comprises his work history, when a manager tells him to step up. That manager is a lot like Mason’s photography teacher, always giving him sage advice to focus and work hard, that raw talent isn’t enough to succeed. High school is barely focused on in favor of college. Mason gets briefly bullied by some assholes in the boys’ bathroom but he brushes it off. Do teenagers really act like that? Where’s the crippling doubt? The anxiety? The social pressures? The difficult balance of school work, personal life, and social life? We don’t see Mason get his driving license, get his first job, his first kiss, loose his virginity, crash his car for the first time, or hang out with his best friend in a meaningful way. “Boyhood” attempts to chronicle a young life via a series of moments. But they’re not the moments anyone actually remembers.

The focus is instead on his family, I suppose. Mason is lucky to have the coolest dad in the world. I mean, holy shit, Ethan Hawke is cool. He drives a cool car. He takes his kids on cool trips to the bowling alley or the zoo. Or he takes them camping. More importantly, he always levels with them on a meaningful way. My favorite moments are either when he gets his kids to come out of their preteen shells during a heart-to-heart in the car. Or when he explains that whales are magic. It’s not overdone. His advice is realistic, not idealized. Even after he gets remarried, has another kid, buys a minivan, and grows a dad ‘stache, he remains casual, relaxed, but observant, understanding, and good humored.

Mason’s mom, on the other hand, does her best. She’s always focused on the future, going to school to get a job to support her family. Unfortunately, this causes her to serially overlook the present. It’s interesting to note: I watched “Boyhood” with my mom. The big moment that has been getting Patricia Arquette praise, and a likely Oscar, is when Mason is getting ready to move out. Struggling with empty nest syndrome, she yells at her son, feeling like her life is over now. My Mom, however, found this moment to be laughably selfish. “Way to take a moment that’s about your child and make it all about you,” she said. Interesting. Of course, Mason’s mom does have a positive affect on the people around her, like when a tossed-off piece of advice changes the life of her Mexican handyman. Natural, touching moments like that should have been more present.

“Boyhood” has been widely praised for its twelve year gimmick. Just on a practical level, yes, this is impressive. I can’t watch movies like that though. All that matters is what’s on the screen. To my eyes, Linklater overdid the cultural signifiers. As a six year old, Mason watches “Dragon Ball Z” and sleeps in similarly themed bed sheets. His sister sings Britney Spears. In school he plays “The Oregon Trail” on an iMac. He attends the midnight release of “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.” One moment has him playing on a Gameboy Advance. For that matter, we see him progress through video game system. He frags his stepbrother in “Halo” on an original Xbox. He tries out boxing in Wii Sports. He watches the Will Ferrell “Land Lord” video on his laptop. His sister watches a Lady Gaga music video on her cellphone. (“Boyhood” could have been subtitled “Raise of the Touch Phone” as you slowly watch the technology become ubiquitous.) His dad has him hammering Obama signs onto front yards during the 2005 elections. The soundtrack is equally too-on-the-nose. Coldplay! Flaming Lips! Sheryl Crow! Even, god forbid, “Crank Dat Soulja Boy!” Over the twelve years, Linklater picked the most obvious bits of cultural recognition to emphasize. Never once do we see Mason obsess over a weird, fly-by moment like kids are wont to. The focus should have been far more on the kid’s personal little hobbies, like his arrow head collection that disappears before he turns twelve, instead of pointing out to audiences “This is now 2006!” And bafflingly, all pop culture signifiers vanish when Mason turns into a teenager, as if teenagers don’t care about pop culture.

And while I’m yelling at the movie, let me take some time to point out how hard it leans on the “Drunken Asshole Stepdad” troupe. As soon as his mom meets Bill, her college psychology professor, we know he’s trouble. He seems a little too interested in his student, in a slightly predatory manner. Because the movie leaps around so much, we go from their first date to the day after their honeymoon. Not long after that, the obvious suspicion is confirmed. Bill is an asshole who drinks too much, bosses the kids around like a general, enforces dickish rules, pulls dickish stunts, and, yes, smacks his wife around. No shit, Patricia. Mom seemingly turns her life around after that, getting a decent job as a college professor herself. Then comes the next drunken stepdad, a Gulf War vet that was one of Olivia’s students. His abuse is much more subtle, in the form of taking down Mason’s confidence or acting like the big macho man of the house. (One good moment here: We see Jim wearing a uniform of some sort throughout the film. We assume he’s a cop. After a drunken argument with Mason, he turns around, revealing a big “CORRECTIONS” sign on his back. A prison guard is a considerably lower level of authority and makes Jim’s overbearing behavior more obnoxious.) Considering how bold “Boyhood” is suppose to be, it leans on familiar troupes a little hard.

The movie is too long, running well over two hours. The final act, devoted to Mason’s relationship problems, career future, and college plans, are a snore. Linklater falls into his worst habit, that has haunted him since “Slacker,” where he lets his camera drift off to unrelated, uninteresting local eccentrics. This is a bad side effect of him loving Austin too fucking much. The last scene, in particular, is awful. Mason moves into his dorm room, meets a cool friend, and hangs out with a girl. A lot of his problems seem to melt away. The movie furthers the false belief that college actually changes a person, that it’s the next step in your life, instead of just moving the same shit into a bigger building. The girl, who will obviously become his next girlfriend, shares her opinion that life is a collection of meaningful moments. Gee whiz, Linklater, way to flat-out tell your audience what the movie’s theme is, as if we couldn’t figure it out on our own. It really ends “Boyhood” on a sour, obvious, ham-handed note.

Despite these concerns, “Boyhood” is a good movie. The acting is uniformly great, especially from Ellar Coltrane as Mason, who gives a calm, focused performance. Hawke is excellent and Arquette is quite good. Linklater’s direction is naturalistic and relaxed, staying out of the characters’ way and pulling the audience into this world. That he kept this up for over a decade, when anyone could have walked away and sunk the whole thing at any point, is impressive. Taken as a whole, it’s not the definitive coming-of-age story. What it does best has nothing to do with coming-of-age. Would I prefer it win Best Picture over “Birdman?” Oh fuck yeah. But does it deserve to win at all? I don’t think it does. [7/10]

The Oscars start in twenty minutes. Because I’m swell at time management, here’s my ranking of the Best Picture nominees.

Whiplash: 9/10
The Grand Budapest Hotel: 9/10
Selma: 7/10
The Imitation Game: 7/10
Boyhood: 7/10
The Theory of Everything: 6/10
Birdman: 5/10
American Sniper: 5/10

Come back in a few minutes, probably, for my annual Live Blog of the ceremony. Bring booze because I’ll definitely need it.

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