Boyhood (2014)


I suspect if you sent a hundred people who had never heard a thing about this movie (which, admittedly, would take some doing) to a blind screening and asked them afterwards what the “key” scene was, you might very well get a hundred different answers.

Whether this is a good or bad thing is….well….who knows?

I certainly don’t. I sort of suspect that director Richard Linklater likes it that way–us not knowing.

I haven’t seen his other work, not even Dazed and Confused, but I gather he’s a laid back kind of dude.

Very nonjudgmental.

And, judging (oops, there I go, backsliding already) by the film’s near universal acclaim–not to mention the profoundly, even obsessively, realized non-message of the film itself–this has become the highest state to which humans can possibly aspire.

Everything’s cool. Or, at least the only thing that keeps everything from being totally cool is an occasional “asshole” (to borrow the film’s most common epithet), and the fact that “We’re all just winging it!” because, hey, given the universe’s faulty basic design, what else can you do?

And, wouldn’t ya know, all the cool kids at all the cool magazines and newspapers and websites are flipping for it.

So, at last, the new, superior brand of non-judgmentalism has arrived.

Funny thing though. When you get past the surface, it looks a lot like old wine in a new bottle.

I guess since the old wine was really just nihilism wearing one of its friendlier masks, this is sort of like a kinder, gentler nihilism (to adapt a phrase from one of our former presidents who certainly knew a thing or two about nihilism).

Let me venture to say that one can admire the skill with which this film is made and still be frightened to death by it.

Yes, it’s wonderfully acted (especially by the unimpeachable Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke and the director’s daughter, Lorelei, who unfortunately gets kind of written off and shunted to the sidelines about half-way through). Linklater definitely has a strong, identifiable style. And there are certainly moments of genuine warmth and humor in it.

But it’s finally empty.

If I was one of those hundred people I just mentioned, the scene I would nominate as an expression of the film’s raison d’etre would be one that takes place by a lake owned by the step-parents of the titular “boy’s” father (I believe that would make them his step-grandparents but don’t hold me to it).

The father (Hawke) is basically thanking his kids, Samantha (played by Lorelei Linklater), and Mason Jr., (Ellar Coltrane), for playing along, making nice to the old couple (his second wife’s aforementioned parents) who give Mason Jr. a bible with his name engraved on it (big laugh in the theaters) and a shotgun (no reaction here, but I’ve heard there have been both titters and audible anger expressed elsewhere) for his fifteenth birthday.

Somewhere in this sequence (I don’t recall if it was just before or just after the bestowing of the gifts–both nonsensical in the given context by the way**), Samantha looks at Mason Sr. and says:

“Dad, you’re not becoming one of those ‘God people’ are you?”

Not to fear.

Even though the brief scene inside the step-grandparents’ church, with a piece of a legitimate New Testament sermon being delivered, is by far the most authentic bit in this supposedly hyper-realistic movie, nobody’s in danger of getting religion.

Or anything else.

That would soil the concept, which is that life is devoid of any real happiness or unhappiness, it’s all real temporary, and, you know, “We’re all just winging it,” while time flows by like a river.

So just go with that flow and, in the words of another character, “You find your people.” (In Linklater’s Texas, this apparently happens in college–preferably at the really cool one in Austin.)

I’m not sure quite what Linklater set out to achieve here. The movie runs nearly three hours. It was very famously shot over twelve years, with the actors literally coming back a few days each year to film the next set of scenes as they aged, etc.

That made it a tricky concept. It’s supposed to represent life–and, after seeing both the movie and the intelligentsia’s incongruously Pavlovian reaction to it, my haunting fear is that it probably does.

So the work–plus the sheer audacity of the thing–really could have been its own reward. Gifted filmmaker pursuing his singular vision and all that.

Fine and dandy. That’s a journey anyone can respect.

But Boyhood has a philosophy, too, and that philosophy–which amounts to “nothing matters and what if it did” and has been wholly embraced by the crit-illuminati in a manner so unprecedented that one of the country’s preeminent film critics (Kenneth Turan of the L.A. Times) felt compelled to assign his review slot to someone else because he couldn’t give the film a positive review (a development that, in it’s very different way, is at least as chilling as anything that happened in Ferguson or Mosul this week)–is deadly.

It’s a funny thing for me to be saying that, too, I guess, because I write a lot here about our collapsed culture (and about the likelihood that such a collapse makes the body politic unsustainable as anything but a leviathan-style security state resting on a feudal style of economic “security” which is itself illusory).

But I don’t embrace the collapse. I don’t think it’s “cool.” (The word that counterpoints “asshole” in Boyhood’s world view.) However weary I may sound at a given moment, I’m still here to carry a fight, marginal though it may be.

Because I think it’s not only not cool, but a shame.

A crying shame.

Our shame.

Boyhood wants us to lay back and enjoy the decline….or at least admit resistance is futile. So it’s fundamentally a critique, not so much of the decline itself (which, I really wish I could have made it out to be), but of people like me, who think resistance is vital and necessary and, in this time like any other, “winging it” is not an option.

Makes it all kinda personal I guess.

One thing I’ll bet though.

Nobody who was involved in making Boyhood–or in making it the crit-fave of the year–will ever admit to their own embrace of this film’s inherent dude-style nihilism.

Too judgmental.

[**–Take it from one who has received such things and holds them every bit as dear as the very cool record collection which I acquired all on my own. Neither an engraved bible or a family heirloom shotgun (or, in my case, a hunting knife) is something folks like those depicted in Boyhood would ever be likely to bestow on a kid they hardly know just because their daughter married the kid’s not-quite-deadbeat dad. Why would they, or anyone, bestow such permanent things on what are very likely to be impermanent relations?]