Thursday, February 12, 2015

A Theory on Why "Boyhood" Could Win Best Picture

Ellar Coltrane
As I wrote in the past with articles on Selma and Birdman, I feel like there is a three way tie for Best Picture between these two and director Richard Linklater's Boyhood. Where Selma captures a historical drama with a modern poignancy and Birdman captures cinematic passion through technique, neither has the emotional core that has made Boyhood a runaway hit during awards season. True, between Boyhood and Birdman, the honors have been almost predominantly split with the Best Picture equivalents looking like 26 to 22 wins. Still, with the BAFTA win this past Sunday, Boyhood is looking to be the clear favorite for a lot of reasons. The most notable of which is that it is ripe with ambition and wasn't made to be an Oscar darling, but just an impressively crafted film.

There is one distinct honor that Boyhood will have provided that the momentum pays off. It will be the first film in Academy Awards history in which the Best Picture winner premiered at Sundance. While it wouldn't be the first of its kind to receive this nomination, there have been few films that actually held any chance of winning. At most films like Beasts of the Southern Wild or Precious were reserved for acting awards. For Boyhood, it not only embodied the indie aesthetics of Linklater and his obsession with exploring time, it crafted a story using flawless techniques that pieced together a story over 12 years. It was quite an undertaking and the fact that it all pays off is a miracle unto itself. Still, the fact that the film premiered in January of last year means that it has somehow held importance longer than either of its competitors. In fact, there was a period where it didn't even look like Boyhood would make the short list of nominees with nobody really talking about it.

However, the film's biggest strength feels like it is that it rings like the quintessential indie movie of the modern era. With many critics calling it groundbreaking, even ending up in first place on The Dissolve's best films of the decade so far, there's been a lot of favoritism in it. It could largely be that Linklater has been overdue for his unique style for some now. It could also be because the film feels largely anti-narrative and works more as a meditative, nostalgic journey into the decade behind us. While it is very familiar as a Linklater film, it doesn't quite feel like anything that the Oscars have really applauded before, at least in recent years (more on that later). 

Contrary to popular belief, indie films have long been considered the underdogs at the Academy. While it could just be that they don't have budgets to compete with studios and Harvey Weinstein, they have at most been dignified with nominations. Still, the Best Picture winners don't reflect any rapid change to embrace a wider array of cinema. While there has been a few bumps along the way including Best Picture winners The Hurt Locker, The Artist and 12 Years a Slave, it isn't the norm. The beauty of independent film is that it isn't predicated on a specific style. As great as these mentioned films are, they don't break the mold and reinvent cinema. At most, they emphasize how great technique empowers a story.

So basically, Boyhood has a singular gimmick and it is why the film has resonated. Its gimmick is reliant on making us empathize with a young boy named Mason (Ellar Coltrane) as he ages from six to 18. The result is a cohesive collection of moments that reflect how a child is raised and the influence his surroundings have on him. There's plenty to like, but it gets mileage out of the nostalgia factor and is even sidetracked by the gimmick of shooting every year. Much like Birdman has the single take gimmick to its credit, these films use something inherently silly and use it to make something more powerful and awe-inspiring. To sit through Boyhood is to witness an accessible form of indie cinema and to understand what dedication to a project actually is.

Scene from Cimarron
While there have been many themes that the Oscars have been obsessed with, time has been one that wouldn't seem so obvious. While it does seem indicative at the moment with last year's 12 Years a Slave being told over, yes, 12 years and Boyhood being told over, yes, 12 years, the trend has been more slight in its past. At most, the average film would at best chronicle a few years in order to tell a story with massive appeal. Time is the essence of legacy and thus it is important for revolutionaries of whom the Oscars cannot help but admire. In fact, Boyhood's only flaw is that Mason ends the movie without becoming a revolutionary of any kind. 

Still, time has been a popular theme going back to 1931's Best Picture winner Cimarron. On top of being the first western to win this category, it was a story that followed a family moving into a city and watching it grow over 40 years. The film itself has suffered in reputation in the decades to follow, but it told of a captivating story of how Yancey Cravat (Richard Dix) came to romanticize the old west even as it faded into the modern city. It was both reverent of a genre and also explored tragedy in a way that would occasionally show up in films like Cavalcade and The Great Ziegfeld

Still, its biggest strengths lied in telling a story of someone worth rooting for. With cinema being fairly young, there's a lot of excuses to award innovation over story. In fact, the 30's felt more indicative of giving out trophies for films that explored the medium in exciting ways. Cavalcade was a British war film that managed to execute a romance that wasn't entirely indicative until the third act in ways that likely struck audience's attentions. It is also why the decade is likely considered rather boring.

More contemporary time stories include most notably Forrest Gump, which spans across latter day American history through the eyes of its titular lead (Tom Hanks). With the 90's being full of historical dramas, it was the only one to effectively subvert the execution in a way that felt revolutionary. While Boyhood lacks much other connection to this film, their approach to narration feels similar, if just in that the nostalgia factor will influence how closely you relate. If you're able to look back on the 2000's and recall fondness for the technology and the pop culture, maybe you'll feel that the film is something exceptional. Similarly, if you have no fondness for baby boomer culture, Forrest Gump is immediately isolating.

Boyhood feels odd in retrospect. With the Academy voters being notably old and white, they don't necessarily have much connection to the film directly. The older generations are outliers in the film with most focus being placed on the young parents and Mason. If many considered the Academy of being out of touch for choosing The King's Speech for Best Picture over The Social Network in 2010, then what's to suggest that Boyhood is the clear favorite? The Academy doesn't really reward "young" films that much. The only real thing that gives it an edge here is technique. For all of the merit its competitors likely have, none were filmed over 12 years and looked pretty good in the process.

Scene from Birdman
Of course, while this isolation factor is a key detriment, it is important to note how the Academy has changed from even the past year. Where last year saw the more familiar patterns emerge with nine Best Picture nominees (for the third straight year) and all of the films being released after October, this year sees a different picture. For starters, there are eight nominees and Boyhood's wide release in July is the earliest that a Best Picture nominee has been in quite awhile. Even the fact that its three top competitors are all independent films suggests that the Academy wants to be different this year. The fact that Whiplash somehow made the cut is still astounding not necessarily because of its merit, but because of how youthful and aggressive that film actually is. 

It is a year where expectations are out the window. Well, in most cases, anyways. The acting categories are pretty much set in stone. However, there isn't a clear favorite in the Best Picture race. This is exciting simply because of its unpredictable nature. As it stands, Birdman has won almost as many Best Picture equivalent awards as Boyhood and even outranks it in terms of nominations. While many have predicted Boyhood as the clear favorite, Birdman feels more like an obvious choice for all of the bias that I explored in my theory piece. It is more divisive and the emotional resonance isn't always there. However, it does pack a visceral experience that gives it somewhat of an edge.

I also feel like because over half of the Best Picture nominees and favorites are indie that Boyhood has more of the edge. While the references may be a little isolating, it does capture a period of a boy's life that almost everyone has been through. It may be at times too conventionally formatted, but it creates a universal appeal full of those hard hitting moments, but it is flawlessly told. It is likely to get sympathy votes just on how impressively put together the whole thing was. It doesn't rely too much on tropes and in some ways is the most anti-cinema that the Oscars have recognized so openly. It would be an ambitious choice to give this film the award solely because of its novelty.

Scene from Boyhood
In conclusion, there isn't a lot to argue against this movie. It is a film that resonates because of how it can connect to audiences. Speaking as the film chronicles a period that every single person who views the film has been through, it is immediately relative. It grabs you and shows you how patience and dedication can create cinema. While the other films have a lot more impressive feats to their credit, the simplicity of Boyhood allows the story to connect with audiences. It serves as an embrace of life in ways that the Academy usually doesn't notice. As it stands, it is a film that works on a nuanced level, as most viewers have had mothers, fathers and sisters of which the film can hearken back memories of. 

I don't think it is the best reason why the film deserves the Best Picture. It is the front runner, and it may largely be more for admiration of craft and personal reasons than properly judging the film against its peers. Of course, the ambition alone is something worth noting and why I feel that the Academy should give Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Birdman) the Best Director statue and this Best Picture. Both are striking in noteworthy ways and I have trouble wanting one to win over the other. 

Still, Boyhood resonates more to a general populous, but is it too isolating for the Academy voters? It is a question that I continually second guess myself with. I do appreciate Boyhood as this journey, but it sometimes feels too specific for older crowds. There's not a whole lot of zeal that makes it more noteworthy than another. Yes, it has a universal crutch in its corner, but is it too anti-narrative to really succeed? I do think that its playful use of time is key to assessing its chances, especially when noting other successful films to explore time such as CimarronForrest Gump or 12 Years a Slave. There's something awe-inspiring about the passage of time that creates nostalgic bias, often within the same film. It will be interesting to see how this plays out on Oscar night.

No comments:

Post a Comment