Throughout this past awards season, press and people alike have seen exceptional praise given to two specific movies: Boyhood and Birdman. Both films have been recognized as the best movie of 2014 by multiple award shows. Boyhood earned the top prize at the Golden Globes, the BAFTAs and the AFI. Birdman earned Best Film praise from the Independent Spirit Awards, the Gotham Awards and the Screen Actors Guild. When it came to the Oscars, guesses were 50/50 between the two critical darlings as to who would take home the shiny golden man in what The Huffington Post called, “one of the haziest Best Picture races in recent memory.”
On Feb. 22, the haze was cleared as Birdman took home the Best Picture trophy at the Oscars. While some might be ecstatic about that choice, others feel that it was the wrong move. Richard Brody of The New Yorker claimed that Boyhood and its writer/director, Richard Linklater, showed that its “perceptions are finer and subtler, his sense of milieu truer, his compositions both more precise and more relaxed.” Dan Kois of Slate called Birdman’s win “an epochal travesty,” and referred to Boyhood as “revolutionary…a film that reconsiders, in surprising and rewarding ways, [film’s] relationship with time, with storytelling, and with its audience.”
I saw Boyhood last August, just as it was hitting theaters and I was…bothered, to say the least. But as the Oscars got closer and closer and Boyhood-fever picked up speed, I decided to take another look at Linklater’s magnum opus to see if I missed anything. After deep analysis and a some time to mull it all over, I’ve concluded that Boyhood is, without a doubt, one of the best movies of 2014… but it is not THE best movie of 2014 and is certainly not deserving of the Best Picture Oscar. Even with the impressive 12-year span of shooting, its (mostly) engrossing narrative and some great performances, there is nothing else entirely revelatory about Boyhood.
As the orchestrator of this indie-symphony, Linklater is one of the main problems with the movie. Aside from the aforementioned 12-year shooting schedule, Boyhood is shot and looks like any other coming-of-age indie flick. There’s nothing about the framing, editing or shooting style that makes Boyhood unique. Linklater shot a straight-forward movie with the occasional environment of a Texas sunset to create a striking visual.
Story-wise, Boyhood is also slacking. The film tries to indicate that it’s a portrait of the modern American transition from boy to man. To its credit, the film does show a formed and fleshed-out portrait of a childhood: the moving from place to place, awkwardly transitioning from school to school, dealing with the various stepdads and new families, talking to girls and hanging out with friends, drinking and smoking, etc. Where Linklater’s story falters is in the dialogue, especially when his younger cast members are in their teens. As I mentioned in my previous editorial, Linklater’s characters are clearly of his own design and not that of the 21st century. Linklater’s teenagers talk more in long monologues than in believable conversations. Even when the youngest of actors talk like the kids they are, it sounds out of touch. It might as well be Linklater sitting on a rocking chair on a porch yelling, “those darn kids need to stay off my lawn!”
But the anchor that dragged Boyhood down in both my first and second viewing was the central focus: Ellar Coltrane as Mason. I’ll admit, it’s hard to knock an actor in his first major role and something he started when he was six-years old. To his credit, he does a solid job at emoting the awkward transitioning from boy to young man. The awkwardness of talking to people and the uneasy feeling every time his mom meets a new man. Coltrane deals with reality in a very believable way, like when he talks with his dad about whether magic is real or the anger he has when he gets his head shaved by his stepfather. But, as I’ve stated before, he loses it all when he becomes a teenager. In my recent viewing, it was a bit easier to connect with Mason. When I was in highschool, I also found it awkward to talk about myself with adults and I also wasn’t sure of who I wanted to be when I grew up. It is possible to sense that same worry of the unknown in Mason, but it’s still hard to when it’s clogged up by his incessant rambling. It’s bad enough that Linklater’s writing criticizes modern teenagers and sounds more like an annoyed old timer than an actual kid, but Mason’s delivery only makes it sound more pretentious. Even in brief moments where he can be relatable, Mason’s not a likable person.
Now of course, there are some personal issues that Mason keeps inside, like all teenagers do because it’s scary to share feelings. In the constantly spinning world where teens have to keep up with school, jobs, their future and their families, it can feel like there’s no room to deal with your own personal feelings. However, it is important to share those feelings with someone—anyone. Mason only shares mere blips of his feelings, even with his friends. He’s completely closed off.
A pivotal example is when Mason is packing up the last of his possessions from his mom’s new apartment. He’s about to leave for college, rendering his mother all alone. She begins to cry as she realizes that she’s running out of treasured moments to share and even closer to her funeral. She’s broken and exhausted from all the failed relationships she’s had over the years. Mason’s response? Staring awkwardly at her. Linklater then cuts to Mason packing his truck and heading out on the road. WRONG. The correct response would be for him to hug his mom and thank her for all the crap she’s had to put up with in order to raise him. Whether that was the end of the scene or if Mason did embrace her and Linklater decided to cut it, all sympathy and relatability to Mason went down the drain. When I lost the ability to connect with Mason, it practically severs my entire ability to make a connection between myself and the film.
I’ve read that Boyhood is a very singular film, especially for Linklater. To me, it means that this movie was for nobody but Linklater. To break down the film piece by piece, it’s technically bland and competently acted, but fails in its final act to keep the entire story interesting or relatable. It’s credible as an attempt to capture the modern American maturity of a kid, and Linklater’s commitment to the project is something to celebrate. But to me, the Best Picture went to the movie that was consistently entertaining outside of popcorn/blockbuster movie format, had actors butting heads against one another, was timely in its commentary on the current trend of Hollywood hits and touches on everything from art critics to relevancy in the social media age. That was Birdman, an awesome feat of acting and filmmaking that earned its praise.