Who is Boyhood about? The question seems so dumb as to almost be worthless, but what if I asked you “Who is 12 Years about?” Because right up until a few months before release Boyhood was called 12 Years. The release and success of 12 Years A Slave necessitated a name change and the movie ended up taking on a different identity.
This question became important to me this weekend. I was honored to take part in my first voting meeting as a member of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), a truly important and storied group (their advocacy for Terry Gilliam’s Brazil actually got the movie released). Voting for year end awards is an all-day process, but not an unpleasant one, and there’s a lot of interesting strategizing that happens along the way.
Before we get back to Boyhood and Patricia Arquette’s role in the movie, I want to explain to you how voting works for LAFCA. The assembled group sits in a room and we go category by category, with each member reading aloud three nominations for each category with points attached to each. Your first choice gets three points, second choice gets two and and third choice gets one. There are tabulators who keep track, and at the end of the round - when all forty-something people in the room made their nominations - the top two point-getters are announced and we vote on them. Thus a winner is decided. The system is cool because you can keep track of which films are getting traction and move your choices around before it’s your turn to vote - more than once I moved a film from my number three slot to the number one slot to give it a points boost when it was clear my actual favorite wasn’t getting anywhere.
It’s important to understand that the nomination process is fairly open. You can name just about anybody for just about any film, even if you’re just essentially throwing your vote away. Even year of release isn’t necessarily a barrier to nominating a film at the LAFCA meeting - many films that will not be released until next year had their proponents in the room. There was some discussion about whether A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night - an American-made film shot in Farsi - counted as Best Foreign Language and the decision was made to let people nominate it and see where it ended up (it didn’t make the final cut, rendering the debate moot).
With that in mind I raised my hand before voting began on Best Supporting Actress and asked the group to consider whether the role that Patricia Arquette - currently a frontrunner in the awards race - plays in Boyhood is truly supporting or if that’s just the category she’s in because it’s more winnable for her at the Oscars. I simply asked the membership to consider this question, and as the nominations were tallied I was shocked to discover no one nominated her for Best Supporting Actress.
Then when the Best Actress nominations started her name began popping up. And she made it to final two. And then she won. This caused many awards watchers on Twitter to throw their hands up in disgust - you’re not helping her campaign, some said. You robbed Marion Cotillard, others said. It’s simply the wrong category, others complained.
Let me explain my reasoning and, I suspect, the reasoning of my colleagues who voted Arquette Best Actress. I’m going to leave behind all the semantic arguments (isn’t the main actress in a movie the lead actress, even if she’s supporting a more leading role?) and just focus on the movie and the storytelling within.
One of the things that frustrates me about Boyhood is the profoundly passive nature of Mason (Ellar Coltrane). He’s almost Forrest Gumpian in the way he just sails through the movie, rarely even commenting on the events happening around him. This element of the character becomes codified by the end as Mason finds a calling in photography, an art that requires him to be forever at a distance from everything, always observing, never being a part of the action. But that blankess is also part of what makes the character so compelling for many viewers - the white space that is Mason’s personality allows the audience (especially men of a certain generation) to project themselves into him.
Of course Mason is very young for much of the movie, and Richard Linklater’s film is about capturing a realistic vision of suburban childhood, not making an adventure movie, so that means the character’s agency is inevitably reduced. Fairly privileged white kids tend to move on a track that is set for them up until about high school or college, when there is finally a chance for them to begin making their own choices.
Which means another character must be the main motivator of action and emotion in the movie, must be the person setting that track, and that is clearly Arquette’s Olivia. Mason is developing as a human in the wake of his mother’s choices and situations, and in many ways the film is essentially a mother and son character study. Ethan Hawke’s father is much more classically supporting in that he pops in and out of the picture to measure milestones for Mason - he reflects the growth of the boy. Arquette spurs it.
What’s more, I’d argue that the story of Boyhood is just as much about Olivia’s journey as it is Mason’s. Boyhood is about a woman’s sacrifice as she attempts to create a better life for her children. That sacrifice comes into stark relief at the end, as Mason is moving out, leaving Olivia alone in the apartment they had shared. Everything she has done - going back to school, marrying and leaving men - has been about making life better for her family. She has struggled on the edge of Mason’s perception to keep her family going, and her reward, in the end, is that her family leaves her. That’s the best case scenario: Mason and Samantha move on as healthy adults.
Mason is, without a doubt, the POV character of Boyhood, but Olivia is the engine that moves everything. Her story is strong and present, unlike the off-screen life of Mason Sr. The fact that audiences ignore Olivia’s story, assume it’s a supporting story, is really a reflection of how we see the lives of single mothers in general; considering Olivia as a supporting character states that the struggles of the single mother are subordinate to the aimless movements of her son. The truth is that they’re complementary, informing each other throughout.
I go back to the original title of the movie - 12 Years. That, to me, is a better encapsulation of what the film is truly about. It’s funny how a title can completely skew the meaning of a movie even if every frame of the film remains essentially the same.
When it was all said and done I was surprised that the other members of LAFCA agreed with me (and to be really fair I didn’t even list Arquette as my top choice in the nominating process for Best Actress!), but I’m glad they did. The end-of-the-year awards scrum shouldn’t be about servicing the narratives of publicists but about recognizing work. I’m not here to advance a movie or a filmmaker or an actor to an Oscar but rather to praise the best work and call attention to the underseen work. We gave Best Actor to Tom Hardy for Locke, and some pundits noted that this won’t improve his Oscar chances… but who cares? Will it point more people to an excellent movie that wasn’t as widely-seen as it should have been? Hopefully. And hopefully giving Patricia Arquette Best Actress instead of Best Supporting Actress will make people reevaluate the way they watch Boyhood.