A Boy’s Life

Every great movie is a little different each time you watch it.  If there is any clear divide between good cinema and bad cinema, it’s that the former contains depth and subtlety that the latter lacks—much of which remains hidden until you’ve digested it many times over.

Watching Boyhood for, let’s say, the fifth time was, for me, distinguishable from the fourth for a very particular reason:  I was, for the first time, viewing it in the presence of an actual boy.

Over the weekend, Richard Linklater’s 2014 film debuted on cable TV, right around the time a big family get-together of ours was winding down.  A handful of us tuned in, many for the first time.  Among these was my 13-year-old cousin, who was skeptical about why a director would take 12 years to make a single movie, let alone why anyone would watch it—especially with its nearly three-hour running time.  (No doubt many grown-ups feel this way, too.)

Then the movie got underway, and he grew mildly engaged—not least by the friction between Mason, the protagonist, and his slightly older sister, Samantha.  (He has a sister, too.)

As Boyhood approached its halfway point and Mason’s age aligned with my cousin’s—leading to such vignettes as getting verbally accosted by schoolyard bullies and discovering the wonders and mysteries of women—he sat up in his chair and remarked, “That’s exactly how it is!”

I don’t think Linklater could’ve asked for higher praise than that.

If Boyhood is about anything, it is all the little joys and horrors of being a kid from first to twelfth grade in today’s America, particularly if you’re a guy.  Naturally, this makes those within that age range the movie’s target audience—or, at the very least, the people who can best judge whether what it portrays rings true.

As a 20-something American male, my own adolescence played out only a few years removed from the movie’s time frame.  And so I have felt reasonably confident, up until now, that Boyhood is as accurate and insightful as most people say, hence its magnetic effect on my psyche.

But memory is unreliable, and there are innumerable films about childhood that reflect their directors’ assumptions about the experience that, in fact, are either romanticized or traumatized beyond any sense of realism.  (Sometimes this is deliberate, but often not.)

Now I know, much more confidently than before, that Linklater nailed it.  I know because someone with much more authority on the subject than I has said so.

That means a lot to me, because it helps to calm one of my greatest cinematic fears:  That my deepest and most memorable film-going experiences somehow weren’t real.  That they were manipulated, mistaken or emotionally fraudulent.  That it was all in my head.

This fear is especially acute when it involves movies that are universally acclaimed, heaped with critical praise bordering on hysterical.  Boyhood is a classic example, with Manohla Dargis in the New York Times calling it “profound” and a “masterpiece”—terms used very sparingly in the paper of record—with the Times’ other film critic, A.O. Scott, writing, “In my 15 years of professional movie reviewing, I can’t think of any film that has affected me the way Boyhood did.”

I know how he feels, but it can be dangerous to employ such gushing appraisals about works of art, since they inevitably raise viewers’ expectations to impossible levels, leading to an equally-inevitable backlash featuring contrarian critiques and the barking of words like “overrated.”  While there hasn’t yet been a ton of this with Boyhood, there has been just enough to make me nervous.

To be clear:  I don’t fear opposing views about my favorite movies.  I only fear persuasive ones.  I fear that someone will point out some fundamental flaw that I hadn’t noticed before and that I won’t be able to shake it when I see the movie again.

In general, I know better than to read things that will do nothing but upset me, and I am endlessly thankful that the overwhelming majority of Internet-based analysis is complete rubbish and not worth anyone’s time.

But then there are folks like Ross Douthat, who recently posted a New York Times blog entry titled, “The Trouble With ‘Boyhood.’”  Although Douthat is best-known as a Times op-ed columnist, he also reviews movies for National Review and, more to the point, is one of the most thoughtful and intellectually honest writers in the biz.  So when he is compelled to puncture the idea that Boyhood is perfect, I can’t just dismiss it.

As it happens, I did not ultimately find his gripes about the movie compelling.  I understand how he reached the conclusions he did, but my recent re-viewing rendered his critiques immaterial.  For instance, he says (and quotes others as saying) that by the end, Mason does not appear sufficiently affected by the various family dysfunctions in his upbringing, and that there is not nearly enough drama and conflict to get us across the finish line.

In one sense, Douthat and his co-contrarians are right:  Overall, Boyhood does not examine the long-term consequences of divorce and other familial unrest on children as thoroughly as it might have.  Nor is Mason himself an exceptionally assertive or colorful character, and he has a definite knack for deflecting would-be hardships instead of absorbing them head-on and having to nurse the resulting emotional wounds.

On the other hand, what does that have to do with anything?

Life only happens once, and we all handle it differently.  If Mason emerges from an adolescence of constant domestic turbulence with a general air of serenity, maybe it’s because that’s just the kind of person he is.  On what basis should we expect him to act any other way?  If the years of fighting and bitterness between his estranged parents give way to comity and near-reconciliation, perhaps it just demonstrates that adults, like their kids, are sometimes capable of change and personal growth.

It’s absolutely true that the players in Boyhood do not follow the conventions of similar characters in other films, nor does the film itself adhere to anything resembling a traditional plot.

Who ever said that it should?  I don’t know about you, but I prefer movies that approach their subjects differently than movies that came before.  If I wanted to watch the same thing over and over again, I would watch the same thing over and over again.

Indeed, that’s what I seem to be doing lately with Linklater’s little experiment.  Not only do I find it so very different from everything else that’s turning up in movie houses today, but also—if I may end where I began—a novel experience from one viewing to the next.  As Mason grows from a six-year-old into a college freshman, so does the movie itself assume a more confident and fully-formed identity.

I can’t explain this.  (Nor do I care to.)  All I know is that I’m still very much in the rapturous, love-at-first-sight stage in my relationship with this movie.  And like all such relationships, it contains a modicum of stone-cold dread for the moment when it all comes crashing down to Earth and I find out that Boyhood is not the greatest thing since gluten-free bread after all.

That’s the trouble with love:  It’s completely irrational, and therefore fragile—especially when reason suddenly enters into it.

I would love to think that my visceral adulation of great films is impervious to logic and to the criticisms of others.  But I am a logical being, too, and cannot depend on sheer faith to ensure that such adoration burns brightly forever.

That’s what makes it so heartening to find other people who feel that burn, too.  Or simply, in this case, someone who sees a portrayal of a young boy’s life and says, yup, that’s how it is.

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One thought on “A Boy’s Life

  1. I personally didn’t enjoy Boyhood, as I say during a frenzied rant on my blog, but you do make a compelling point about watching Boyhood with a boy! Maybe I should give it a 2nd chance?

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