Last week, Screen Junkies posted a hilarious trailer for Boyhood, likening the Oscar frontrunner to the Harry Potter franchise but "without a plot or magic or fun." The slow-moving indie film isn't for everyone, but it's nonetheless in a tight race for Best Picture, its 12-years-in-the-making premise up against the creative stylings of Birdman.
It's an extraordinary premise, to be sure. The film's depiction of time is mesmerizing - amusing in some moments and resounding in others. Pop culture breezes from "Oops!...I Did It Again" to those giant pastel iMacs to Roger Clemens pitching at a Houston Astros game. The Iraq War begins and ends, subtly influencing a generation. Meanwhile, the actors grow and grow up, blending with their characters in ways we've never quite seen before on screen.
But if the Oscar goes to Boyhood this Sunday because of Richard Linklater's unique filming structure, the voters will have missed the point (cue: Kanye West). As affecting as that structure may be, it's just a device that enables the storytelling - and Boyhood's storytelling is profound.
Of course, as the Screen Junkies trailer teases, there is no story. Nothing happens in Boyhood. But then, life happens. Coming-of-age narratives are typically punctuated by dramatic revelations; Boyhood's lessons by comparison are quiet and passive. They're embedded in the mundane, in the constant observations that accumulate over the years and inform an adolescent's perspective. Mason (Ellar Coltrane) is shaped by the dead bird he finds when he's six, his first peek at a lingerie magazine, casual conversations about relationships and Star Wars with his boyish father (Ethan Hawke) during camping trips, over fries at the bowling alley.
If that sounds boring, it is. Boyhood is at once engrossing and ordinary, and purposefully so. No scene embodies this better than the narcissistic breakdown Mason's mom (Patricia Arquette) has when he leaves for college: "You know what's next? My f*cking funeral," she cries, realizing that her life is just a series of events that relentlessly march on. That's the harsh truth that Boyhood captures so effortlessly and that Linklater wants us to appreciate. And slowly, by sharing in 12 years of this family's experiences, we do.
As the film evolves, so does Mason, into an introspective, brooding 18-year-old who starts to ask the questions built into the film's fabric. Is there any real magic in life? Do people ever get it together? What's the point of all of this? His college love interest, high on a special brownie in the final scene, offers the best answer to that last question: The moments seize us, she says, not the other way around, and that trippy observation is Linklater's only explicit message to us.
Boyhood isn't a statement or a stunt; it's a celebration of moments, the ones that get buried in the way we try to make sense of life. Linklater's 12-year project may be the most ambitious of the decade, but his vision --that life in its simplest form is worthy of being explored on film-- is much braver. You don't have to be entertained by Boyhood to see that.
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