Why the Unanimous Praise for 'Boyhood'
Is Bad for Film Criticism — and for 'Boyhood'
By Sam Adams
"Boyhood's" near-perfect scores on Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes drown out the voices of critics who want to take a closer look.
Enforced uniformity is normally the province of action-movie fanboys, but at least a few cinephiles scowled when Matt Pais' negative review of Richard Linklater's "Boyhood" was posted to Rotten Tomatoes on July 17, thus "spoiling" its previously perfect Fresh rating. Three weeks later, Pais' 2-and-a-half-star notice is one of only two green splats amid a sea of red.
So while the Los Angeles Times' Kenneth Turan isn't, strictly speaking, the only critic to express reservations about "Boyhood," you can understand how he might feel that way. "If you do it right, film criticism is a lonely job," he writes in an article explaining why he's one of few critics not to fall in love with the movie. "But some films make it lonelier than others. Films like 'Boyhood.'"
Turan is not, he hastens to add, a hater, but for him, the concept underlying Linklater's film was more entrancing than its execution. And so, faced with being out of step with the vast majority of his critical peers, and not wanting to "rain on its parade," Turan stepped down from reviewing "Boyhood" and passed the baton to his colleague Betsy Sharkey, who ended up calling it "an extraordinarily intimate portrait of a life unfolding and an exceptional, unconventional film in which not much else occurs."
Given that the raves for "Boyhood" began to pour in the second the end credits rolled on its first screening at Sundance, perhaps it's not surprising that the small handful of dissents are, like Turan's, preoccupied with their own eccentricity. Of the 14 sentences Armond White devotes to "Boyhood," fully half of them are devoted to characterizing its audience — or, more precisely, diagnosing the "think-alike idolators" who love the film. For White, "Praising the deliberately mundane 'Boyhood' fits the pattern unconsciously followed by most culture writers (who also tend to be white males) seeking to confirm their own privilege and importance — but without examining it."
Patheos' Cusey says she saw Ellar Coltrane's Mason as "one of those Millennials who drifts through life, unconsciously embracing his entitlement attitude, never finding a passion for which to fight or a real problem to overcome." That critics love it has less to do with their "demographic sameness" than a uniformity of mindset: "The type of person drawn towards criticism tends to be urban, liberal, and/or progressive, a mindset that I think of as BlueState."
Mark Judge identifies "Boyhood" as a beneficiary of "'Sideways' Syndrome," named for Times A.O. Scott's thesis that critics were overly kind to Alexander Payne's movie because they saw themselves in his protagonist, a tubby elitist with anger issues who uses his purportedly elevated sense of aesthetics to compensate for his feelings of personal failure. (In the New Yorker, Rebecca Mead called "Boyhood" "the apotheosis of relatability." She did not mean it as a compliment.)
"Something similar may be going on with 'Boyhood,'" Judge writes:
Movie critics identify with Mason’s social awkwardness, the liberalism of his biological parents, even the gender-bending when Mason lets a girl paint his nails. Ann Hornaday: “By the time Mason, now a deep-voiced teenager, affects an earring, blue nail polish and an artistic interest in photography, viewers get the feeling that he’s dodged at least most of the misogynist conditioning of a boy’s life.” Yes, and he’s also missed the passion, and conflict, and girl-crazy adrenaline-rushed joy of being a boy.
I would argue there's at least as much projection in Cusey and Judge's takes as in any of "Boyhood's" positive reviews: Cusey's distaste for Mason's "entitlement attitude," her vision of him becoming one of those kids currently in their parents’ basement... still waiting for something to come along and bring meaning to his life" ignores — willfully, one has to conclude — the extent to which "Boyhood" foregrounds his parents' financial difficulties and fast-forwards right past the restaurant job Mason works the summer before college. As for Judge's assumption that a partial freedom from "misogynist conditioning" is somehow incompatible with the "girl-crazy adrenaline-rushed joy of being a boy" — well, that's between him and his therapist.
It strains credulity to argue that the overwhelmingly white and male makeup of the film critical profession has nothing to do with the uniformity of "Boyhood's" reviews, especially given the feeling-all-the-feels quality of some of the more breathless raves. But that line of argument ironically erases the voices of critics who found their way into "Boyhood" without being white or male: the New York Times' Manohla Dargis and Grantland's Wesley Morris, to name only two of its most eloquent appraisers.
Although I fit the demographic profile, I found myself identifying much more with Mason's parents than Mason himself, or rather, seeing myself in their place: As a parent, my experience of "Boyhood" was much less about being Mason than watching him grow up, observing the changes in his body and his voice as a boy became a young man. One of the hoariest, and truest, clichés of parenting is that time moves more quickly than you can ever imagine. "Boyhood" is that process compressed into a manageable span: "It Goes So Fast: The Movie."
Kenneth Turan has his own hypotheses about why he didn't fall for "Boyhood": He's lost his taste for coming-of-age movies; he's always been cool to Linklater's work. But I wish he had reviewed it, and not only because I think critical uniformity is bad for the profession. While there's no question that "Boyhood" will remain one of the best-reviewed movies of the year, reducing the reviews to an aggregate score — especially a "perfect" one — only makes it worse. Delve into those reviews, and you'll find they hit a lot of the same notes, but you'll find some different ones as well — and even some that (gasp!) register criticisms of "Boyhood" on their way to the eventual thumbs-up.
I was deeply moved by "Boyhood," but that doesn't overwhelm the clumsiness of the scenes involving Patricia Arquette's progression of bad-idea boyfriends, or counterbalance the movie's relative aesthetic neutrality. (The movies that have thrilled me this year, a list that includes "The Grand Budapest Hotel," "Under the Skin," "A Most Wanted Man" and "The Babadook," have both substance and style.) What bothers me about the chorus of hosannas is that it has a way of drowning out voices that are even slightly dissonant: Oscar blogger Sasha Stone, who has been hyping the movie's Metacritic score as a totem of its award-worthiness, was moved to respectfully but superfluously counter Turan's dissent, lest the slightest negative sentiment about "Boyhood" take root.
"We live," Turan writes, "in a culture of hyperbole," one where "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." Masterpieces, however, are not made so by unanimous praise, but by careful scrutiny. Criticisms, and the extent to which they illuminate the fascinating imperfections beneath those masterpieces' surfaces, only make them stronger.