The Movie Club

Boyhood and the best movies of 2014: Why I call the movie Goyhood.

Entry 7: Everyone sees a little of himself in Boyhood’s Mason. But is he actually a character at all?

Ellar Coltrane in Boyhood (2014).
Ellar Coltrane in Boyhood.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo courtesy IFC Films.

The Movie Club is a weeklong conversation about the year in film. Read all the entries here.

Hey folks! 

I don’t want to go all Holly Hunter in Broadcast News on you and bury the lede, so I’m just going to come out and say it: I peed next to John Lithgow. In a bathroom. It was at the New York Film Critics Circle awards, where I had the wonderful and terribly overdue opportunity to meet fellow Movie Clubber Stephanie, talk to a publicist about how Amy is a champion emailer, and loudly bemoan the fact that I still haven’t met Dana. (She was there, but somehow we missed each other.) Also, there was the John Lithgow thing. So yeah, I guess you could say that a lot’s happened since my last dispatch.

I’m sitting at my desk, wearing what’s left of my suit and tie, rocking out to the score for Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (Rachel Portman for *life*) and trying to imagine whom Oprah would play in Ava DuVernay’s Taken 4. And yes, I’ve been drinking. But in fairness, who hasn’t? Maybe people who live in glass houses probably shouldn’t drink out of them, ya dig?

Anyway, as the awards show reached the Boyhood portion of the evening and Ellar Coltrane (birth name: Ellar Salmon, as in “You’re a Salmon girl, right?)” presented the supporting actress award to his movie mom, Patricia Arquette, I couldn’t help but think of Amy’s comments about the feat. Er, the film. While I don’t really agree that Mason’s journey assures us that we’ll eventually all become square and middle class, I continue to feel there’s a real tension between the specificity of Boyhood’s characters and the universality of its effect.

I don’t want to diminish how Boyhood plays time like an accordion—jumping around the Blu-ray at will is the closest thing I’ve ever had to a truly Tralfamadorian experience. In a way, this feels like the first 4-D movie ever made, and theaters didn’t even upcharge for it, so that’s pretty cool. But in the context of such an incredible achievement, I wonder how much the details actually matter.

On the one hand, it’s neat that this remarkable film has connected with so many people and on such a primal level. On the other, the fact that so many people see themselves reflected in Mason’s adolescence suggests that the character is more of a mutating looking glass than a fully realized being. It’s a tough line to toe, as so much of the film’s power is predicated upon tapping into an inherently human experience, and picking a white, middle-class Texan for its hero allows Boyhood to reconcile personal details while still using a protagonist who feels like the gestalt of American adolescence. So much (too much?) of what we’ve already discussed has pertained to issues of representation and the value of audiences seeing themselves onscreen, but it’s hard to ignore how Boyhood so pointedly cleaves to the norm that it often feels like Mason is less of a kid than he is a perfect homunculus of “the American Boy” (as that construct has been depicted, not as it actually is).

So it was strange for me that the movie seemed to underscore the relatively subtle ways in which I’m different. Namely, I couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that I’m Jewish, which is usually only something I think about when I want to make fun of the fact that I’m Jewish. Sure, there’s really only one scene where religion plays a prominent role, but that one cultural discrepancy was like a foot in the door for all of these other concerns to slip through, and it got to the point where I began commonly referring to the movie as “Goyhood.” But the thing is that almost no one is going to see themselves so perfectly reflected by this film—life is just too nuanced—so I found myself frustrated by how Richard Linklater moves Mason increasingly closer toward the impossible center of the world’s most cluttered Venn diagram.

Even though I wasn’t wild about some of the stuff earlier in the movie (e.g., that cartoonishly alcoholic stepdad), I have to agree with Amy that Boyhood loses a little something as Mason grows up, because as the kid turns into a teenager, he seems to become less of an individual and more of a vessel for the film’s unifying concepts. The veneer of unchecked reality that makes child performances so irresistible starts to wear off, and suddenly—around the time that Mason is forced to photograph a high school football game and decides to shoot around the action—Boyhood is no longer about a boy becoming a person so much as it’s about a boy becoming a Linklater character.

I know they only shot for a few days each year, but it’s clear that the movie played a huge and inevitably formative role in Coltrane’s life, and I’m fascinated by how he and Mason informed each other. Seeing Coltrane get choked up as he presented Arquette with her NYFCC award, listening to how he spoke of her, and seeing him sitting between Arquette and Ethan Hawke at their table by the podium, it felt like I was eavesdropping on a family reunion. (It doesn’t hurt that the actors seem to share a genuine affection, which is easy enough to suss out when there’s an open bar.) As a result, this whole incident restored for me the specificity that was lacking from the latter parts of the film, and for a hot second it felt like I got to enjoy the full force of what makes people lose their heads for this movie.

Anyway, enough about Boyhood, let’s talk about farts. Amy, I am one of the proud, the few, the Marines who thought Dumb and Dumber To was hysterical, yet I am appalled by your suggestion that it had the year’s best farting scene. I don’t want to get all National Society of Film Critics up in this piece, but Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language had one of the greatest farting scenes of all time!

I’m not joking when I say Goodbye to Language is hilarious. In fact, several of the funniest films I saw this year were unexpectedly so, in no small part because people seemed unwilling to accept them as comedies. As with any new Godard film, Goodbye to Language was ghettoized into the vague and oppressively austere domain of the art house, but in light of what Amy was saying about the dearth of romantic comedies, this year’s movies (or how they were classified) make me feel like we’re being subjected to a culture in which comedies can’t afford to be qualified, whether by romance or anything else. Sure, Neighbors and 22 Jump Street were great, but I laughed (or at least smirked) just as much during Force Majeure, NymphomaniacInherent Vice ,and Listen Up Philip. What is The Grand Budapest Hotel if not a romantic comedy about a man and the hotel he loves? Meanwhile, broad comedies like Horrible Bosses 2 and A Million Ways to Die in the West made The Turin Horse look like a laugh riot.

So Stephanie, I guess my question to you is about the state of comedy. I’m not sure if you agree about the humor in the specific films I mentioned, but do you feel like we’re missing the straight-up comedies, or are you too busy laughing along to so many different movies that you don’t even notice that we may have abandoned one of our purest genres? I’m not quite sure how I feel, but I know that the uproarious climactic scene in Sullivan’s Travels is starting to feel uncomfortably unfamiliar.

OK, time for me to pass out. See you next time, space cowboys.