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Boyhood didn't win the Best Picture Oscar. Was that a horrible decision — or a good one?

Boyhood proved victorious in the Best Picture category at the Oscars.
Boyhood proved victorious in the Best Picture category at the Oscars.
IFC

Boyhood, Richard Linklater's ode to American childhood, was considered one of the frontrunners for Best Picture at the 2015 Oscars. It ultimately lost to Birdman, about which debates will surely rage for years.

Many have argued that Boyhood should have won, with Slate's Dan Kois, in particular, saying this is one of the biggest Oscar mistakes ever.

But did Boyhood really deserve the prize? Here's one case for it and one case against.

The case for Boyhood

By Todd VanDerWerff

In some ways, Boyhood has been the victim of its own success.

Now that it's one of the most well-known movies of the year, pretty much everybody knows what its central gimmick is. You go into the film not just knowing that you're going to watch four actors age over 12 years, but you've also probably seen ads that show star Ellar Coltrane (the "boy" of the title) as both a boy and a young man.

No film can survive this level of hype and foreknowledge, and Boyhood is particularly susceptible to it because the film is so delicate to begin with. It doesn't really have a story, so much as it has a suggestion of a journey every human being who survives to adulthood takes. We start out dependent on our parents, and we end up leaving home to do something else with our lives. The film's arc is the very opposite of revelatory.

Yet Boyhood has been robbed of what makes it so special by this process, which is the way that it feels like a kind of slow-motion miracle if you give yourself over to it. The ideal way to watch this movie would be to stumble upon it at 3 am, on some out of the way cable channel, knowing nothing about it. Then, the slow growth of protagonist Mason from boy to man would feel as moving and hypnotic as it should.

Alas, however, Boyhood won a whole boatload of year-end prizes and was nominated several times at the Oscars, which means it will forever be in a very select group of films. That will both heighten the mythology built up around it, as well as its flaws.

Boyhood seemed like the Best Picture frontrunner for quite a while before it succumbed to Birdman. Partially, that was because of a very mild backlash against it. So let me attempt to speak up for this tiny little film before it comes to be defined by that backlash. Its unusual shooting schedule was essential to illuminate its central theme: childhood drags on forever for kids, but is fleeting for parents.

Boyhood's flaws are also its strengths

In a 2011 discussion about the film Black Swan, a deeply messy movie that I nevertheless hugely enjoyed, critics Matt Zoller Seitz and Andrew O'Hehir posited that sometimes, the flaws of a work can make it stronger. This might sound paradoxical, but in many cases, it's true. Raw perfection can be boring. Something that has big, obvious flaws can allow a chance to see its strengths in sharper relief.

That's uniquely true of Boyhood, where the film's biggest flaw — its cipher of a protagonist — is also one of its greatest strengths.

Boyhood is primarily successful if you can read yourself into the film. (And should you be a woman, director and screenwriter Richard Linklater has provided you a similarly valid self-insertion figure in Mason's older sister, Samantha, played by Linklater's daughter, Lorelei.) As such, it all but requires its central quartet to be made up of characters who feel like the family next door, people you might know pretty well but rarely know as well as you know your own family.

To a degree, this is influenced by the film's production. When Linklater began making the film, he had a very rough idea of his central premise, and he had some sense of the four characters. But he didn't have the full 12-year arc of the story mapped out. Who could have?

As such, this means the movie is more episodic than a lot of other films, which contributes to the feeling of Mason being unknowable. The film's individual segments come to feel a bit like visiting the house of a childhood friend whom you know well but perhaps not well enough. We experience the characters as surfaces, and only in the very late going (when Mason's mother and father finally lay out how much the emotional journey of watching their children grow has affected them) do we get a sense of their interiors.

This could be a devastating flaw in many films, but as mentioned, it only makes Boyhood stronger. This is because Linklater keys into the way that we, as children (and even often as adults), experience the other people in our lives. We see them primarily as extensions of ourselves, as supporting characters in our own stories, and if we realize they have their own inner lives and their own goals, that knowledge often comes too late for us to do anything with it.

As children, we're constantly trying on personas, trying to find the one that best fits the person we believe ourselves to be. We're most affected by our parents and siblings, of course, the people we see all of the time, but we also try on elements of the personas of friends and other trusted adults.

Thus, the Mason we get to know best as a human being is the Mason of the film's final passages, who seems like the kind of kid who will be annoying about philosophy and other ostensibly deep topics in his early 20s but will otherwise be basically fine. He has an interest in photography. He's begun to understand something of what his parents sacrificed to raise him. He's loved a girl and lost her. Basic stuff, yes, but it adds up to a beautiful suggestion of what he might become, one that the audience can, nonetheless, imprint upon with their own memories and thoughts.

Miracles, slow-motion and otherwise

That's why I keep returning to the word "miracle" to describe this film. It's hard enough to make one movie make sense in a conventional shooting period. It's another altogether to come up with a film that hangs together and says anything about life over a 12-year process.

But Boyhood is more than the fact of its admittedly miraculous existence. It's also, like so many of Linklater's films, about time, and about how we have so little of it, even as it seems like we have so much that we don't know what to do with it. The movie keeps returning to pop culture and political touchstones of the era in which it was made (a Harry Potter release here; an Obama/Biden poster there), mostly to orient the viewer. But it also serves as a subtle reminder: the world has changed so much over 12 years. And it's only going to keep on changing.

Parents have a common refrain: childhood goes by so rapidly. You lose what little time you have with your kids as kids, and then they're out of the house, first to school, and then to adolescence, and then, finally, permanently, to adulthood. This is good and expected. This is the journey we all have to take.

But there's also a core of sadness to that idea, isn't there? Nothing can last. We're all forever caught up in the gears of history, dragging us forward endlessly. Boyhood captures that "in the blink of an eye" aspect as well as any film ever made, and it understands how, for Mason, this is an opportunity, while for his parents, it's a minor, if expected, tragedy.

I remember my own childhood as a long, languorous idyll, marked mostly by brief periods of furious emotional activity. But for my parents, it slipped by much more rapidly, until I was living half a continent away and only occasionally checking in by phone. The true miracle of Boyhood isn't that it captures aging on camera. It's that it simultaneously captures the way time passing feels like a slow drip to Mason, while feeling like a rushing torrent to his parents. It is both a life too long and too short.


The case against Boyhood

By Dylan Matthews

Near the end of Boyhood as the protagonist Mason Evans (Ellar Coltrane) is about to head off to college, his mother, Olivia (Patricia Arquette), breaks down crying.

"You know what I'm realizing?" she asks Mason. "My life is just gonna go, like that! This series of milestones. Getting married, having kids, getting divorced … sending you off to college. You know what's next? Huh? It's my fucking funeral."

She concludes: "I just thought there would be more."

That's a pretty good summation of my feelings about Boyhood. So much is going right. Richard Linklater's direction is as solid as ever, Arquette and Ethan Hawke put in stellar performances. The soundtrack is basically perfect (remember the Hives? Linklater does). But … I just thought there would be more.

The problem with capturing a whole childhood

For one thing, the script doesn't contain a coherent plot so much as a chronological sequence of loosely connected vignettes. There's no thread tying it all together, no central conflict animating the characters.

That's on purpose, of course. Linklater told the New Yorker's Nathan Heller that he deliberately didn't want to make a movie about a particular dramatic moment in a childhood. He just wanted to make a movie about childhood:

As Linklater entered his forties, he kept returning to the idea of making a movie about growing up. But he couldn’t see how it could work. "If you make a film about childhood, you’ve got to pick a moment — you know, The 400 Blows, " he says. Most childhoods aren’t like Truffaut’s, though. They have no single, representative dramatic stretch. They gain meaning across years and disparate moments. The problem nagged at him until it didn’t. "I sat down at my computer, and I had a flash of that feeling: why couldn’t you do that?"

The comparison to The 400 Blows is unfortunate, since it mainly serves to emphasize how much more successfully that film tackles the same topic. 400 Blows does, as Linklater says, have a single dramatic stretch, namely when the central character, Antoine Doinel, was 12 years old and in constant conflict with his parents on the one hand and teacher on the other. And it's only by focusing on him at 12, and zeroing in on how the adults in his life at the time made him feel powerless and misunderstood, that 400 Blows gets to pull off sequences like the spinning scene:

Out of context, this is just a fun childhood anecdote: a carefree day playing hooky and going on a carnival ride. In context, it gains considerable resonance as a symbolic representation of the freedom — not just from others' control but from the need to make decisions for himself — he's been longing for. And we can only see it that way because of the time spent establishing what motivates Antoine at that moment in time.

Who is this movie about, again?

Boyhood, by contrast, rarely gives Mason enough time to show us what he's about, what he wants, what he's fighting against. There's just too much ground to cover. It's rife with scenes that are clearly meant to be poignant, to get at something deep, that wind up signifying nothing because we have no idea what they're supposed to mean to Mason.

The most baffling might be the sequence where he's hanging out, drinking, and messing around with sharp objects in an under-construction house. What does Mason think of the older guys he's hanging out with? What appeal do they hold for him? Who's to say! Instead they have a couple of beers and throw blades around while Mason says basically nothing. He gets teased a bit about his dating life and makes up an ex-girlfriend as a cover. That's it. That's all we get.

That's a recurring problem. Mason says basically nothing until he turns 16 or so. It's a lot of people doing stuff to him and very little of him even reacting to it, let alone becoming a part of it. Presumably, the scenes here are particularly important, or meaningful, to Mason's life. They're the ones he'd pick out if writing a memoir or an autobiographical film of his own. But the film never involves him enough to show us why he picked them.

In one scene, he takes a bike ride with Jill, a girl in his class, who tells him her friend LeAnn has a crush on him. This is clearly supposed to be a very significant moment in Mason's life. A girl has a crush on him! Surely, this will prompt an exploration of how this makes Mason feels, whether he's ready to try kinda sorta dating somebody, or if he's too scared, or if he's gay, or whatever. Nope. Mason gives only a perfunctory response. Jill and LeAnn are never heard from again, and it's onto Mason-one-year-later.

The problem with high school Mason

Mason even acknowledges his inability to express himself: "I don't usually even try to like vocalize my thoughts, or feelings or anything." Unfortunately, he then proceeds to more than make up for it in the latter half of high school. And it's bad. So, so bad.

The problem is that, because Mason's spent the movie up to this point passively observing the goings-on around him, what he says when he does learn to talk doesn't feel rooted in anything. It doesn't evolve organically. And it shows.

For the most part it's just clichéd drivel. He tells his soon-to-be girlfriend Sheena, "I just wanna be able to do anything I want, because it makes me feel alive." Cool, sure. Mason then proceeds to have a fight with his mother's new paramour in which he asks rhetorically, "Man, can I just have one day where everyone isn't all over my ass!?" before noting, "You know, Jim, you're not my dad." Really. There's a "you're not my dad!" scene. That's how unique and well-developed a character Mason is.

And then there's the closing scene, featuring Mason's observation that "it's like always right now, you know," which is the kind of line Yogi Berra would consider and then reject as too far, even for him. I was grateful I wasn't the only one in the theater who burst out laughing at it:

Mason's inability to say anything that isn't totally insipid was by far the most surprising problem with the movie. If there's anything Linklater excels at, it's crafting good dialogue and filming it compellingly. That's the whole organizing premise of Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight.

And it's the greatest strength of Boyhood's most obvious antecedent, Dazed and Confused. While Boyhood sprawls in timeline, Dazed sprawls in ensemble size. Both have relatively little time to explore individual characters' motivations at a given moment, because in Boyhood there are too many moments and in Dazed there are too many characters. But Dazed makes the time it gives characters count. Take this sequence with Mike Newhouse (Adam Goldberg), who plays a relatively small role in the film overall:

That scene is 40 seconds long, and I feel like I understand Mike Newhouse much, much better than I do Mason Evans after watching all three hours of Boyhood. The scene tells me that Mike's a misanthrope, obviously. It tells me that his altruism is primarily intellectual, rather than driven by instinctive interpersonal empathy. It tells me that he has a surprising amount of professional ambition, hidden underneath layers of sarcasm and self-effacement. It tells me things about Mike Newhouse that make him more than a stock "angsty teen" character, an archetype Mason never really gets to escape.

The most common praise I've heard for Boyhood is that it feels universal: it's all of our childhoods, we all find something to connect with in it. But that's exactly the problem. Boyhood is universal in virtue of having an abstracted-out shell of a central character in place of one specific enough to be at all interesting.