Sunday, February 22, 2015

When Movies Move Us

            Every year, the number of journalists covering the Academy Awards season seems to increase exponentially. We may have reached a point where more reporters are covering the Oscars than the conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. These legions of experts are feeding us loads of predictions, including the not-so-surprising news that the best movie of 2014 may not win the award for Best Picture tonight.
            If that happens, and Richard Linklater’s masterpiece Boyhood fails to grab the award tonight, it will be nothing new. In recent years, it has become commonplace for the best film to lose out due to the peculiarities of Hollywood politics. Lincoln loses to Argo. The Social Network falls to The King’s Speech. Brokeback Mountain is upended by Crash. Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line are beaten by Shakespeare in Love.
            Of course, there is a long line of great films that didn’t win the Oscar; you don’t need that award to be considered a classic. From Goodfellas to Raging Bull, from E.T. to The Graduate, from It’s a Wonderful Life to Citizen Kane, it’s a prestigious list. And that’s not even counting the amazing films that weren’t even nominated (Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Singin’ in the Rain, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, just to name a few).
            If you’ve seen Boyhood, you probably walked away from the film rather amazed by Linklater’s depiction of a child’s coming of age from first-grader to college freshman. As a parent whose oldest child’s first 12 years span the same dozen years in which the film was made, I found it even more stunning. And I can’t quite understand the criticism that this film doesn’t have a straight, linear plot. Because in these past 13 years of being a parent, I haven’t ever found our family’s story to ever be a tight, well-defined storyline.
            We do the best we can as parents and as kids, trying to negotiate the different individuals with whom we live, and the different situations we’re faced with in life. Sometimes we make mistakes – big ones, even – and sometimes things work out better than we even deserve. It’s a day-to-day journey, and there’s no telling what tomorrow will bring.
We go to school, and meet new kids. We change jobs or move to new homes. We argue at the dinner table. We hop in the car and go somewhere, and learn more about one another in the process. We dance to pop songs. We head out to baseball games, parties and bowling alleys together. We hold each other close.
            It’s a story, all right, but one that’s told better in snapshots than in structured narrative. It’s the kind of story that Boyhood shows us so beautifully. Give me a few minutes of my girls at each age, and I’ll remember the main themes of our lives together at that point. In fact, those brief moments will probably tell the story more authentically than anything else could.
            If you took a few snapshots of our family right now, you’d see a lot of different images. You’d see two girls hunkered over their homework at the kitchen table. A 42-year-old mom sitting at her laptop to prepare lesson plans for the week. A 44-year-old dad researching map routes for a summer cross-country trip with his family. A teenager fighting through the shifting hormones and anxieties that come with adolescence. A 10-year-old in love with reading, from Harry Potter to Judy Blume. Two sisters on the living room carpet, dancing to Taylor Swift. A husband and wife trying, somehow, to grab a couple of hours alone together – but settling, most of the time, for a half-hour chat while making tomorrow’s lunches in the kitchen.
            None of these images tell the whole story. But put a few of them together, and you’ve got what you need. In truth, there’s no way to tell the whole story of a life. Maybe that’s why Boyhood is so breathtaking – because it actually understands that. It sees the rich narrative in those moments.
In one scene, Ethan Hawke’s character is camping with his son Mason, played by Ellar Coltrane. They’re eating s’mores while talking about Star Wars, and whether there will ever be a seventh film. “Return of the Jedi, it’s over, there’s nothing,” Hawke says. “I mean, what are you going to turn Han Solo into a Sith Lord?” After watching the Star Wars films together, my 10-year-old and I had nearly the same conversation. And I know I’m not the only one. This doesn’t tell you anything specific about either of us, except that we both love Star Wars. But then again, it also tells you that we know how to talk with one another, and hang out, and pay attention to the things that draw us closer.
So tonight, they can give the Oscar to whatever film they want. We’ll fill out our Oscar ballots and enjoy the red carpet, the dresses, the envelopes and the speeches. But we won’t stress over who gets the trophy.
When you see a movie that speaks to you from somewhere deep within, you don’t need an award to validate that. In the end, I’ll take the movies that move me, and hold onto those for the long haul.