The 87th annual Academy Awards were last night, and it was a big night for Birdman. Alejandro Inarritu won Best Director for what was admittedly an incredible movie that seemed like one long take over most of its two-hour running time, and the movie itself won Best Picture. A cynic might say that of course Hollywood loves movies that reflect itself more than anything, but that would be diminishing Inarritu’s achievement. Birdman is a tightrope-walk of a movie; it stays with its actors through long, complicated scenes; it dips between natural, honest dialogue and winking meta-text and hilarious slap-stick set pieces and surreal flights of fancy without taking a breath. It really is something, and I see why it’s getting the recognition it did.
That being said, I have to admit that I’m bummed Boyhood didn’t win Best Picture last night. Taking nothing away from Birdman, I would have loved to see Linklater get rewarded for another, different feat in film-making. He rounded up a number of game actors (and children) for a grand experiment in long-form storytelling, the likes of which we may never see again. While it’s true that there are other movies that allow us to see people growing up right before our eyes (hello, the Harry Potter series! I see you, Michael Apted’s Up series!), the episodic nature of Boyhood‘s narrative allows us to look at the process of childhood and parenthood from a bird’s eye view. It shows us simultaneously what it was like to grow up in the 2000s and the timeless challenges that face families across generations.
The more I think about Best Picture winners, the more I want them to serve as something of a time capsule. The Best Picture winners that really stand out are the ones that either serve as a timeless example of its form, or give us a snapshot of what life was like during a particular time frame. That’s why I’m content with say, The Hurt Locker winning in 2010; it was a great snapshot of a particularly thorny time in our country’s history and helps us remember the incredible emotional toll that war can take on a man. I’m not sure too many Best Picture winners do that — offer something timely or timeless.
I love Boyhood because I think it does both. Linklater ties Mason’s arc to a very specific point in time, anchoring us to a place where the idea of family is morphing into something else; in addition to the people who’ve given birth to us, there are all sorts of people who enter our orbit, affecting us strongly for a time. Sometimes they stay with us, and sometimes they leave our orbit and go elsewhere, but the connection changes us just the same. Mason’s contact with two stepfathers (who turn out to be difficult, overbearing men) encourages him towards the more erratic but lighter touch of his biological father and infuses him with a deep distrust of authority figures later on in life. Things that mean an awful lot to us in the moment are consciously forgotten but spin us in different directions, while the constant, mundane contact of those who we’re closest to either encourage those diversions or gently, steadily course-correct us back to who we are. It’s fascinating to see all of Mason’s major experiences lead him to the next thing; the things he sees and observes burrow deep, and sprout later on in the film once he’s able to own the lessons he’s learned.
The broken family, the difficulties his mother faces as she tries to find love and career satisfaction, the earnest and misguided attempts at parenting from a father who’s still maturing speak to something that’s very much happening now. The boundaries of the family and community are expanding and blending and more than ever I think children are seeing their parents not as people who have their shit together, but fragile, frightened human beings who are just doing the best they can. I think it’s important to capture that, to immortalize the nebulous shape of our most fundamental relationships.
At the same time, we see Mason go from a (sort of) blank slate to a young man, with all the ego of youth and the inklings of who he’ll grow to be over the next decade. It’s fascinating to watch him grow up, and it’s fascinating to watch his mother struggle to find her place while she’s trying to provide her children with good and stable lives. While these issues have been shaded by the complexity of our times, they’re still the same issues every parent and child have faced for so long.
Linklater takes these universal problems and expresses them in ways that are thoroughly modern. At the same time, he doesn’t cast judgement on any of the characters throughout their lives; he merely allows them to express themselves as naturally and realistically as they can. At the end of Boyhood, I felt content, compassionate, connected to my fellow man in ways that generally only happen with great stories. While Birdman is a great film, it didn’t quite give me that feeling. Both are great movies; but I think Boyhood is the one that I’d love for people to remember ten years from now.
Anyway, if you haven’t seen either Boyhood or Birdman, please go see both! But…see Boyhood first.