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“Boyhood” – In Defense of My Dissenting Opinion

I’m very opinionated about what I like and dislike, but I’m also keenly aware that my opinion is simply that – an opinion. Just because I don’t like a film does not mean it’s objectively bad. Art is subjective. Filmmaking is art.

There was a point after graduating from film school that I considered becoming a critic. Criticism of any medium creates a platform for individuals to examine and analyze media – a practice that I believe is an essential part of any thriving society. What we create, whether it is music, film, or literature, is a direct reflection of our culture. By examining creative forms of expression within our society, we are better suited to understand who we are as a people. Film criticism not only allows critics to respectfully discuss what they enjoyed or didn’t enjoy about a film or television show, but the practice provides the opportunity for all audience members to engage and critically evaluate media.

After graduating from college I was (and still am) willing to give anything a shot, so I decided to try film criticism and wrote a few reviews for a website in London. But soon after I began, I realized it was not the career, nor hobby, for me.

There’s a level of understanding I have about the creative process that made it extremely difficult for me to feel fulfilled by critiquing someone else’s work, much less go on to publish my opinions. No matter how much I may dislike a movie, I will always consider the time and effort that the cast and crew put into making it, and how proud they must be of their work. I don’t want to rain on their parade. Who am I to publish my harsh judgments, anyway? As a production student I experienced bringing my vision to life – a painstaking process that is enormously personal. Filmmaking is a passion that’s difficult to separate from yourself. If you insult a filmmaker’s work, you’re essentially insulting them at their very core.

Despite my propensity to avoid reviewing films, writing about Boyhood is different. I want to explain why I didn’t love the film because very few people have. In many ways, the point of critically examining art is to have disagreements that force discussions, therefore resulting in a mutual understand of another person’s ideas. There’s no film that everyone loves and there never should be. The moment we stop having discussions and everyone agrees on what’s wonderful and what isn’t is the moment that art dies. I want people who didn’t love Boyhood to know that they’re not the only ones out there. I want to embrace the fact that our culture is designed to harbor differing opinions and let them be heard.

After hearing such high praise for Linklater’s film over and over again (from NPR to Indiewire and beyond), I had substantial expectations. Knowing that it was shot over 12 years meant that it was already destined to be wonderful in a way no other film had been before. I must say that I do appreciate Boyhood for its theoretical greatness. To have the actors age with the characters was a wonderful sight to behold as an audience member – but for me, the strategy only went so far.

I’ll admit that I did enjoy the first third of the film, which was, for the most part, charming and naturalistic in both story and character development. But the latter 2/3rds of the film became clunky, cliché, and melodramatic. The film’s depiction of single parenthood and divorce seemed very real, but the two alcoholic stepdads were a little heavy-handed. I enjoyed Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke’s performances as Mason’s parents, but I don’t think that their performances carried the film.

There were several moments in the script that seemed like a college or high school student’s attempt at creating something deep and profound. Mason is good at photography, but nothing he does is truly interesting or imaginative. He takes pictures that eight year-olds who are using a camera for the first time take (like a street sign or a fire hydrant). One of my least favorite moments was when Patricia Arquette’s character told a landscaper that he was smart and should go to college, and years later he sees her again and thanks her for changing his life. Though seemingly unintentional, that part of the film came across as somewhat racist and also a little forced and phony. Why was Arquette’s character made to be the hero who showed the young immigrant how great life could be if he got an education? Is the audience supposed to believe that a single individual telling a person they’re smart is going to change the rest of their life? That moment took me out of the film and actually made me laugh out loud, along with half of the audience I was watching with. Did the immigrant landscaper who decides to go college subplot add anything vital to the film? Instead, I think it took quite a bit away.

From middle school to college Mason is constantly trying to prove that he’s “different,” and that all of his thoughts are so uniquely insightful, but nothing he says or does is truly noteworthy. He’s somewhat self-absorbed and a little boring. For certain types of viewers, I could understand how it may be enjoyable to watch a regular person grow up doing regular things – but for me, films are supposed to do more than just show me something I already know. I want an experience. I want a new way of looking at the world. I don’t want to see the mundane unless it’s nuanced.

In critic Kenneth Turan’s LA Times article “Kenneth Turan takes a critic’s lonely stand on ‘Boyhood’” he discusses Boyhood’s popularity among critics and his generally lukewarm response to the film. While I agree with almost everything he said about Linklater’s latest work, what I found most interesting was his examination of our society and how much we all want to feel as though we are a part of something creatively powerful and transformative.

“…the fuss about Boyhood emphasized to me how much we live in a culture of hyperbole, how much we yearn to anoint films and call them masterpieces, perhaps to make our own critical lives feel more significant because it allows us to lay claim to having experienced something grand and meaningful.”

Was Boyhood really as masterful as most critics claim it was? Does it truly deserve to be ranked above 2001: A Space Odyssey, Raging Bull, or 8 ½ on IMDb? Or Apocalypse Now, The Night of the Hunter, or Annie Hall on Rotten Tomatoes? I don’t think so. But then again, I don’t speak for the masses.

Maybe most critics reacted so positively to Boyhood because most critics are young white men and the film is about a young white man. Aside from hearing Coldplay, I couldn’t really relate, and I’m not that much older than Mason.

Coming of age stories are not few and far between. When done, they should at least bring something new into the world, rather than simply rely on nostalgia and a gimmick to satisfy the audiences appetite for something bold and authentic.

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6 Comments

  1. While I really loved Boyhood, I completely get why others would not be as fond of it. I also agree with Turan that we live in a world where people seem only interested in being the first to praise, or be part of the critical majority of, a given work. Thanks to social media, the problem is only getting worse by the day.

    In regards to whether Boyhood is truly as masterpiece, only time will tell that. The films you referenced (e.g. 8 1/2, 2001: A Space Odyssey, etc.) all received critical praise upon their release but it took several years before their masterpiece status was cemented. Those films not only help to inspire generations of future filmmakers, but also have been studied in-depth for years. It will take a few years to see if Boyhood truly has that type of impact.

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    • I agree. I’m definitely interested in seeing if twenty years from now Boyhood is still considered as special as everyone thinks it is today. I don’t think it will be, but who knows, I could be totally off-base.

      And as for Turan’s point, I’m so glad it’s something others have noticed! I really enjoy using social media, but there’s still so much I don’t like about the “culture” of it (i.e. cyber harassment, etc.).

      Thanks so much for commenting and I’m looking forward to reading more of your writing on Cinema Axis. PS – Great top ten list!

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  2. Absolutely spot on. I felt like I stood alone in my opinion on Boyhood. It was just some kid, who after he shed the ‘cute’ phase of his life, constantly asked ‘what’s the meaning of life?’ in a number of roundabout ways for a prolonged amount of time.

    Technically I can appreciate it. Otherwise, nowhere near as great as what people make it out to be.

    Liked by 1 person

    • “It was just some kid, who after he shed the ‘cute’ phase of his life, constantly asked ‘what’s the meaning of life?’ in a number of roundabout ways for a prolonged amount of time.”

      Well put. I think that’s partly why the beginning of the film is much more enjoyable than the latter half.

      After writing this post I’ve had some positive feedback on Twitter, so it’s good to know we aren’t alone in not LOVING Boyhood. I’m sure that it’s going to win the Oscar for Best Picture and I’m just kind of annoyed by it. I still like Linklater as a director though, so I don’t mind all the speeches he’s giving at award shows! Hah.

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  3. not too fond of Boyhood, either, and appreciate your preamble for folks like me who are nervously harboring such a dissenting opinion on what seems to be a Great movie. found Arquette’s character infinitely more interesting and empathetic than Mason, and agree that the landscaper scene was out of place. wonder what Linklater was thinking…

    I actually thought that most critics enjoyed it because they are OLDER white men, and nostalgic for whatever they think boyhood might look like today.

    perhaps I’ll write an actual post.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It took time for me to feel comfortable with the idea of writing something negative about Boyhood, but I’m glad I did. The other day someone told my sister (who doesn’t like the film either) that the only people who didn’t enjoy Boyhood don’t understand “true art.” That’s why I wanted to write about my dissenting opinion – because there’s no such thing as “true” anything and we all have the privilege of coming to our own conclusions. That’s what’s beautiful about films, television, books, music, art, etc. What I like, you may not, and that’s okay.

      Anyways, thanks for your feedback and if you do write something please send me a link!

      Like

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