It’s a great year for film. Think Benedict Cumberbatch in the Imitation Game; Julianne Moore’s acting in the weep-a-thon that was Still Alice. The brilliant Selma and Birdman for everything. But it was Boyhood that stole my heart.
Richard Linklater’s story of a boy growing up before our eyes was filmed annually, a few weeks at a time, over a 12-year period. In our immediate gratification world, the fact that Linklater’s actors, his backers, his team were willing to commit like that—that’s special. As a creative (and risky) venture, Boyhood gets 5 stars.
But honestly, I didn’t fall for a process. I fell for a story. Here’s seven reasons why Boyhood is my pick for Oscar’s best picture (spoiler alert, will reference specific scenes):
- Boyhood didn’t try to push our emotional buttons. A whole host of movies do that to you; the grief and agony and joy are signaled loud and clear (cue tragic music, long tortured stares into the abyss). There was none of that in Boyhood. It was the quiet unfolding of a boy’s story to be taken as you would.
- Those early childhood scenes slayed me, perhaps because they were me. If you’re lucky, your first encounter with death will be coming upon the still form of a lifeless wild creature. But just because you’re strangers doesn’t make it any less momentous. Mason found a dead bird; for me it was a dead squirrel. (I still remember where we buried our squirrel, in the alley behind Sarah B’s house. We said a “Hail Mary” and were surprised at the adults’ reaction. We thought they of all people would understand the need for ritual.) And then there’s the kid who bikes after Mason’s car, when he’s moving that first time. I’ve been that kid. Linklater nailed a child’s unspoken heartache with one glance from a moving car at the figure left behind.
- The film reminds us how arbitrary adult decisions can seem to a child. How basic evidence goes ignored. How strange and incomprehensible we grown-ups are, sometimes. We forget that sometimes. It’s good to remember. Especially if you’re a parent, a teacher, someone who’s around kids a lot. To little ones, we’re all powerful, even if we don’t feel that way in real life.
- Mason’s parents were as real as it gets. Remember the conversation in the car when the kids call their dad out on his lame questions? Brilliant on all fronts (Because there’s no better way to build trust with your kid then admitting when you’re wrong). And Patricia Arquette, how tired she looked sometimes, working hard and studying for that better life. That’s a big old chunk of motherhood. She was imperfect and snappish and she loved her kids. Um, get that.
- There was a gun scene and it was actually kind of tender and while I really, really don’t like guns, it shone another light on a gun culture I know very little about. In the scene, Mason’s step-grandfather gives him a gun for his birthday and you can tell the older man is sharing something treasured. I didn’t identify with the scene or the hunting that followed. But the film gave me a glimpse of why some do.
- This film celebrates all kinds of ways to go to college. Mason’s mother makes some seriously bad choices, but going back to school is one of her best. And later, her off-handed complement sends a laborer to his community college, and next we see him he’s in management. I wondered too, if Linklater was making a small but careful statement about when and why we go to college. Mason and his sister expect to go; we see them enjoying the social side. Mason’s mother and the laborer go because they understand it can change their lives. They know the alternative.
- Finally: the film itself felt as real as… well, real life. Maybe more so. Bear with me. In his book The Night of the Gun, the late, great David Carr writes about the faultiness of memory; that “it is the memory we are recalling when we speak, not the event… people can remember what they can live with more often than how they lived.” In Linklater’s film, we got to see how a boy lived. It felt as though we were there with Mason in real time: there through the ugliness of life with a controlling alcoholic, the bravado needed to survive early teen-hood, the heartache of a first breakup. It was as intimate as a film can be. Yes, I know Boyhood was fiction. But fiction must ring true for us to believe it and in Boyhood, there was not a single false moment. It was Mason’s story, unvarnished, ours for the watching.
Some people complain that nothing happened in Boyhood. You guys. A boy grew up and we got to see it. What could be more stunning than that?