There’s something powerful about making lists, or should I say, one feels powerful making them. Susan Sontag felt this way too, explaining that: “I perceive value, I confer value, I create value, I even create — or guarantee — existence. Hence, my compulsion to make ‘lists’.”
But “value” is a vague word. If I were, for example, to make a list of my favorite movies, I would include “Jaws,” and “The American.” However, the value that I’m conferring to these movies is just a reflection of my own aesthetic and sentimental tastes. “Jaws” is considered an influential classic. But “The American,” was just one of many warmly-received films released in 2010, with little apparent influence or longevity.
It is on this point that I want to talk about a film that, in years to come, will be on many “Best of” lists, one that will be held up as a classic and will influence and inform countless other films. I want to talk about “Boyhood.”
Director Richard Linklater filmed a cast of actors over eleven years, so that they aged in real time. As you can guess from the title, the film follows the growth of Mason Evans Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) as he transforms from a small boy to a young man. Acclaim has been nearly unanimous for “Boyhood,” with many critics praising its landmark premise, attention to period details and deep exploration of American childhood. I’m inclined to agree with most critics about “Boyhood” as a technical achievement of filmmaking. However, I’m less inclined to label it as an enjoyable film.
“Boyhood” does have its moments. When Mason Jr. plays “Oregon Trail” on his PC, I excavated some long-buried and surprisingly pleasant memories from first and second grade. And on the opposite end of the spectrum, the scene where Mason’s alcoholic, abusive stepfather snaps at the dinner table is masterfully directed and acted — resulting in the most terrifying domestic violence scene since “The Godfather.”
But more often than not, “Boyhood,” is a confusing viewing experience. Given its length and breadth, I don’t have the space here to critique it scene by scene, but what I will say is that “Boyhood,” much like its main character, suffers from identity problems. On the one hand, the method of filming creates a very organic, natural aura. We literally see Mason grow before our eyes, as he switches haircuts and worldviews and love interests. In this sense, the film is documentary-like — it chronicles the gradual maturing of what appears to be an ordinary, un-remarkable male.
But the extreme attempts at realism are often interrupted by contrived moralizing. Mason’s mother advises a young Hispanic laborer to get an education, and presto, she runs into him five years later, where he is a college student who has been waiting to thank her. Near the end, Mason and a girl he meets his first day of college eat special brownies, go on a hike and talk about “seizing the moment.” The problem with having so many of these episodes is that they counteract the film’s organic honesty. In other words, “Boyhood” simultaneously brands itself as an entirely relatable, realistic, fly-on-the-wall account of one boy, and yet it is always bashing you over the head with life lessons. So when Mason and Nicole have their carpe diem conversation, you’re not sure whether to nod along with the soundtrack and say “Yeah, we really should seize the moment,” or laugh and say “I remember being a high teenager who would say things like that to someone I wanted to make out with.”
I’m sure many will disagree with me, which is fine. What I really want to get across is that the aesthetic shortcomings and technical merits of “Boyhood” are not mutually exclusive. In fact, there are many celebrated films that aren’t fun to watch. Sergei Eisenstein’s “Battleship Potemkin,” a Soviet-era chronicle of a mutiny on a Tsarist ship, was ranked by the British Film Institute as #11 on their “Top 50 Greatest Films of All Time” poll. Due to its innovative use of film editing and montage, “Battleship” is a great technical achievement. But a silent propaganda film can only be so engrossing; in the end, it’s more interesting than enjoyable. How about “Frankenstein,” that iconic monster movie? Influential as it may be, I’ve always found it to be rather simple and sadistic, as the nuanced creature from Mary Shelley’s novel is turned into a moaning brute whom the main characters delight in burning to death.
Will “Boyhood” be as influential as “Battleship Potemkin” or “Frankenstein”? It’s impossible to know, but I can say with some degree of certainty that it will be discussed, studied, emulated and parodied more than most films. I still don’t think “Boyhood” is particularly profound in its message, or even fun to watch. But it is innovative, and for now that is enough.