I initially decided to see Linklater’s Boyhood not because it particularly interested me, but because it was showing at the same time as two other movies I wanted to see--I Origins and Wish I Was Here. I have a bad habit of paying for one movie and seeing three for that price, the moral implications of which are not really worth getting into. However, a friend of mine insisted that if any film deserved my money, it was Boyhood. When I asked her just what made it so deserving, she replied that it was a Very Important Film and that Linklater had spent so much of his seemingly tireless energy on completing the project.
The former is certainly arguable (and we’ll get to that), but there is no denying that Richard Linklater put a lot of work into the film. Linklater dedicated twelve years to producing Boyhood. Thirty-nine days of actual filming reared roughly sixty-three hours of film that had to be edited into the final three hour product. With a small budget and other projects in the works, Linklater took a big risk in making Boyhood, a film that IMDb aptly describes as, “The life of a young man, Mason, from ages 5 to 18.” We do, literally, watch Mason (Ellar Coltrane) grow during the film--he ages twelve years over the course of three hours, and his fellow cast members follow suit. To depend on the same cast for that long in the hopes of portraying a fictionalized reality is no small gamble. For that sort of ballsy commitment, Richard Linklater has earned our applause.
However, after actually seeing it, I found the honorary title of Very Important Film to be a bit laughable.
After stripping away all the pop culture references, the well-placed set pieces, and the well-timed musical selections, you have little more than a conventional coming-of-age story that would make a better after school special than a piece of cinematic art. The only difference between this movie and a 90s family sitcom (think Boy Meets World or Malcolm in the Middle) is that Boyhood has a hipster spin on it to rub indie film critics just the right way. We’ve still got an all-white main cast, the same divorced parents--“cool” deadbeat dad and hardworking mom who always seems to pick the wrong men--and the annoying older sister. We’ve even got the minor but still stereotypical character of color that a white character “saves” by giving them advice. The only thing that is really “different” is the fact that the main character greets everything that happens in the film--which, admittedly, is not much--with total apathy. A sigh, a shrug of the shoulders, a lopsided smirk as if to say, “Whatever, man.”
For what it’s worth, Mason’s character seems to exemplify my mood towards the film, so that’s at least one point I can give it in terms of my sympathy. That’s where my taste for the film begins and ends, however.
Boyhood is unanimously acclaimed by critics, receiving a 99% on Rotten Tomatoes, a 100/100 on Metacritic, and ranked #49 among the Top 250 on IMDb. By all accounts, it’s been reviewed as a Very (Very!) Important Film.
But for all my reading and research, and my two viewings of the film, I can’t, for the life of me, fathom why. Why should a film that--when it comes down to it--gives us a story we’ve seen a thousand times before be praised so highly?
The conclusion I’ve come to is this: it shouldn’t.
Ultimately, the reason for Boyhood’s unanimous praise has nothing to do with the film itself. Rather, it depends completely on the culture from which the film stems and into which the film pours itself--the culture of the critics viewing it. Most film critics have a lot in common with Mason--they’re white men who (probably) feel at odds with society. Maybe they also had an annoying older sister who stayed selfish and bitter even after turning twenty-five. Maybe they also grew up in small town in Texas with “obnoxious” conservative neighbors that were the essence of all evil. Maybe they also had a “cool” dad who was only around sometimes, and a mom who had a penchant for picking up alcoholics and telling people working manual labor that they can do better. They might’ve even eaten pot brownies in the desert during their first week of college--that’s their business.
If you don’t believe me, have a look for yourself. It’s a sea of white people, mostly men, calling Boyhood a “masterpiece” or a “cinematic time capsule.”
The point is, they believe in Mason’s reality because it’s the reality that these critics have lived. A white male critic applauding Boyhood is, in essence, a white male critic applauding himself.
As much as I want to believe that everyone deserves a pat on the back once in a while, members of the white “hipster patriarchy” do not. We live in a society where those in power--white male film critics, for instance--are constantly validated, and Boyhood is just another example of it. White men get fully developed characters to whom three hour films are dedicated. Women, meanwhile, get minor parts as “annoying older sister” or “hard working mother”. People of color are either stereotypical or absent entirely. And other oppressed groups? Well, you can forget that.
I respectfully incline my head to Mr. Linklater for all the work he put in to the film. I’m sure he meant well. But the fault, dear Linklater, is not in your film, but with the fanatic hipster white men towards which it is geared. Had Mason been queer, female, a PoC, suffering from mental illness, a victim of abuse, or in any other way oppressed--but still surviving--then we’d have something to talk about. Had this film validated the reality of anyone other than the most privileged group in our society, then I would probably be singing its praises. But, just like the majority of coming-of-age-stories before it, it has only validated the feelings and experiences of the most affluent group society has: the white patriarchy. And the white patriarchy has responded thusly, giving Boyhood the ovation it so wrongly deserves, and affirming, yet again, that the reality experienced by the white patriarchy is the only reality that really counts.