By most estimations, “Boyhood” shouldn’t have gone this far. With its experimental approach to capturing the essence of time itself, the movie could have been split into a dozen screens and received its biggest audience at an art gallery. Instead, Richard Linklater’s long-fabled “12-year project” did something else unprecedented alongside the much-ballyhooed production history — it smuggled insanely audacious, boundary-pushing cinema to the masses. Nothing else in this year’s Oscar race can touch the height of that accomplishment.
Last year, those platitudes belonged to “The Act of Killing,” documentarian Joshua Oppenheimer’s radical approach to magnifying the nature of sheer evil by getting intimate with it. By contrast to that intentionally assaultive experience, the transgressive qualities of “Boyhood” sneak up on you. At no point in time does Linklater announce some grand intention of encapsulating the nuances of reality over the course of several years.
But it’s there in the collage of passing moments: Young Mason (Ellar Coltrane), glancing up at the skies in the near-iconic opening image, watches the world go by with casual indifference — and for the next two and a half hours, it does. A few years later, his father (Ethan Hawke) rants to his befuddled kids about the war in Iraq, but his anger hints at more personal dramas taking place just off-screen. The kids’ drunken stepdad attempts to wrestle control of the family and fails miserably; another mean-spirited boyfriend crops up in his place. Mason and his dad go camping. They sit on his porch late at night, strum a guitar, and sing. Mason smokes pot and sheepishly confesses when his mother calls him on it. He toys with sharp metal gears in a garage alongside his local pals after dark, possibly on the verge of suffering a major accident — yet emerging unscathed, because certain things don’t happen just as often as they do. Mason heads to college, meets a cute girl, eats a pot brownie, heads to the desert, contemplates the magic and mystery of being alive.
But ultimately it all comes down to a teary Patricia Arquette, as Mason’s relentlessly struggling mother, to bring the peculiar aspects of Linklater’s fragmentary approach into sharp definition. A shoo-in for Best Supporting Actress this year, Arquette owns the movie’s closing act as she melts into tears on Mason’s graduation day, putting a face to the hidden anxieties surrounding the movie’s subtle forward motion. Her reaction gently pulls “Boyhood” into the realm of existential horror: It taps into the dread of time passing so quickly that no set of eyes can fully bring the secrets of the world into complete focus, or recognize every opportunity to savor its allure. “Boyhood” represents the tension between consciousness and the ever-changing world around it on a sneakily epic scale.
That doesn’t make it your average Oscar winner. (Notably, “The Act of Killing” didn’t take home the gold in the documentary category last year.) While Linklater’s movie has been considered a “soft favorite” in the Best Picture category for months, recent murmurs from pundits reading the tea leaves (not to mention the results of various guild awards) suggest that “Birdman” may barely have the upper hand. While Alejandro G. Iñarritu’s rambunctious showbiz satire offers an undeniable cinematic thrill, the possibility that it could threaten a “Boyhood” win carries some problematic connotations.
“Birdman” offers a wild ride, but hardly anything next-level in terms of its topic or formalism. Ultimately, a win for “Birdman,” a movie about an actor frustrated with the commercial industry and his dwindling creativity, over “Boyhood” would signal that the Academy prefers to wallow in the frustrations of the industry rather than embracing alternatives to its restrictions. After all, the Oscars carry major symbolic ramifications. No matter the rush that “Birdman” offers with its simulated long take and gonzo narrative, it doesn’t show or tell us anything new. If it beats “Boyhood,” the win would signify a resistance to the best innovation on the table of options.
If “Boyhood” does lose, a better source for the upset would be “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” a delightful consolidation of everything Wes Anderson has done up until this point. Like Linklater, Anderson continues to create on his own terms while reaching wider audiences without any discernible compromise. “Budapest” is a purely cinematic treat that both channels great movies and builds on their appeal. Anderson pairs the giddy rush engendered by sophisticated visuals and an inspired score with bubbly dialogue that harkens back to the golden age of screwball comedies. At the same time, his layered plot offers a solemn examination of history’s darker moments, but manages to pin a shred of idealism to its finale. It’s the kind of sophisticated entertainment that mainstream American movies often lack.
Still, “Boyhood” goes one step further. Rather than revising ingredients we’ve seen before, it offers a fresh experience impossible to replicate. More than that, Linklater delivers a seminal chronicle of America in the 21st century. His movie began its baby steps in the days before YouTube and Facebook, less than a year after 9/11, in the first term of the previous presidency. Yet even its early scenes feel contemporary, reflecting the developing sense that — to paraphrase William Faulkner — the past is never dead, but it haunts us.
Such an unorthodox achievement provides the ultimate contrast to any “safe” bet, from unimaginative studio blockbusters to accomplished but fairly traditional narratives. “Boyhood” came together exclusively because the people involved willed it into existence. That task alone has never been done quite so well before, and it’s certainly no easy task today. With the industry living in fear of risk, commercial product tends to become homogenized, no matter how many people would rather see the formula shaken up. If the Academy truly wants to salute the art of filmmaking, they could do no better than to cast a vote in favor of difference.