Monday, January 12, 2015

HYPE DOING AN INJUSTICE TO SMALL PLEASURES OF ‘BOYHOOD’

By Dominique Paul Noth

Patricia Arquette and Ellar Coltrane near the start of "Boyhood."
If there has ever been an example of a quiet thought-inducing movie blown out of proportion during awards season, it is “Boyhood.” Its honorable ambition and unusual concept disguise its excesses in dialog and a sort of literary desperation to suggest universal depth in everyday American life. 

There is certainly something faithful and accurate in much of how it uses familiar family activity and the white America pursuit of middle class education and comfort. All films must draw from specifics to touch us with the larger human circus. But these qualities have been elevated by an overwhelming number of critics and insiders who share the movie’s background, call it the echo of their own boyhood and apparently rule the decision making at the awards shows. 

So while “Boyhood” opened last summer to rave reviews and indifferent box office (which in these days of cgi spectaculars and heavily promoted lousy films could be a source of pride) the hoopla has increased almost violently, with some 90% of big media critics calling it so special to be  worthy of an Oscar. 

The accolades reached a high January 11 at the televised Golden Globes, a usual precursor to the Oscars. After winning best picture and best actress (for Patricia Arquette), it is now likely to return to theaters despite a January DVD release, and it may finally make enough money to reward the care of its makers.  Frankly, it should. The financiers were daring and there is good stuff in there, though not as consistently worthy as you’ve been hearing.

One thing to admire about the movie is how backers were willing to wait some 14 years for any return (hardly proof of artistry but certainly proof of belief). The concept from suggestion back in 2000 was to follow one boy – a personable Ellar Coltrane who grew up to remain good-looking and natural on camera – from age 6 to college, getting the same cast together for 12 weeks over 12 years (including the director’s daughter, Lorelei Linklater, as a first impish and then aloof sister) to improvise around an outline and add their own personal history as childhood friends ebb and flow, families change fortunes and interludes range from living room videos to camping to partying to hiking.

That could have become a gimmick but it was an audacious enterprise by a director, Richard Linklater (also a Golden Gloves honoree), famous for his concern about natural everyday life, around which he had built his previous films. So “Boyhood” chooses moments of broad identify (the revel around a Harry Potter book signing, the parade of haircuts, the mischief of  playmates, the sexual banter of adolescent boys) that parents and perhaps film patrons automatically bond with. It also provides a needed slap to political myths about single parents and broken homes, which often produce the best of the best, and it celebrates as should long have been celebrated the singular dedication of a caring parent caught in such circumstances.

Thus there  is no sudden shocking murder or home invasion but normal observations and clues about how we all have weaknesses we need to  rise above, all framed in alluring landscapes,  snippets of living and the stunned looks children give each other  over the behavior of alcoholic adults.  Toward the end, the maturing Coltrane has a series of encounters with the opposite sex that also are quite watchable as we wait to see the more modern courtship dances.

Award winner Arquette is a magnetic understated actress whose appeal kept the TV series “Medium” alive for more years than it should have.  Here she is the mother determined to become a college teacher, devoted to psychological practice, tireless to guide her  two children into a college bound path, yet choosing what she hopes are stable social climbing  breadwinners to  help her family without realizing they are unstable. Their natural wastrel father (Ethan Hawke) himself is maturing way too late into a good father, and the dialog reminds us of his improvement every step of the way, which I suspect Hawke himself helped overwrite. Much better acting comes from Marco Perella as the initially likable and then loathsome second husband. 

Arquette’s acting has been magnified in these awards since her best moments are observant and her worst are being forced by the haste of cast reassembly to overly demonstrate a sense of loss when she realizes she has not paid attention to herself during her son’s journey into manhood. It is a true observation somewhat artificially realized, and the film is once again getting recognition for the observation more than the execution.

Hawke is not alone in inflating self-attention. Every signpost on this journey is captured in dialog that makes everyone sound like Dostoevsky studying for a college sociology test.  

I understand why the critics went ape. First it is important for the independent film movement when a movie concerned about fidelity to normal life gets such cinematic attention.   But saying that the attention is wonderful and spotted with genuine feelings is not the  same as saying it is creatively mature and lasting.

I’ve been wondering why supposedly thoughtful critics went so far overboard in the embrace, though this overreach in reviews is not a new phenomenon. I’ve been part of it myself.  There are times film makers come along that the critics fear will not be recognized by the general public so they overstate to draw a crowd.  (Directors from Bernardo Bertolucci to Robert Altman to George Lucas have benefited and suffered from this tendency.)

Beyond that, most of these praising critics are, like me, white men (middle aged,  though I am well past that) who survived similar family circumstances, went to college and think “Boyhood” has such a special hold on their own formation that the public will similarly embrace. 

A surprising many can’t even state specifically in their reviews the attraction of the film or define it, except to say “this is my childhood” as if that means “this is your childhood” And while there is something hypnotic about following the growth of one child on the screen and surrounding him with a family of actors and non-actors constantly adjusting their behavior to the idea – well, that is also a description of something predictable. We know where it’s headed and wish it had better editing and writing to remove the self-indulgence.

As long as viewers go in with a little caution about the praise, “Boyhood” is worth some of the efforts to make every wandering on the journey deeply revelatory. At this point Linklater has got to be a bit overwhelmed by the response since he must know that not all American kids from broken homes in Texas grow up with this attention, much less is he trying to have Texas suburbia stand in for black, Hispanic and more heavily urban families who may all claim a different sort of boyhood broken home in the journey. He dealt with his experience and where it fits us all. He presses a bit in filmic techniques, which is his style, but I think he may be surprised at how that pressing seems to have escaped consequence.

Take what’s there, but I’m biting my lip at awards time. Neither the concept, the directing nor the acting are so special as to overwhelm the competition. The belated rejoicing over the film has become misleading.

Other notable end of year reviews:  Whiplash, Wild, Into the Woods, Unbroken


Film and drama critic for The Milwaukee Journal for decades, Dominique Paul Noth began his journalism career in the 1960s, first as international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then an editor at the Green Sheet, then combining criticism with stints as arts editor and later senior features editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combined Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and to serve as the first online news producer. He left voluntarily to run online seminars and write about Internet journalism and online newspapers, then served from 2002 to 2013 as editor of the Milwaukee Labor Press and its online portal, milwaukeelabor.org.  The culture-focused Doms Domain has a political counterpart, domsdomainpolitics, and he also reviews theater for Urban Milwaukee.