Wow, People on the Internet Really, Really, Really, Really, Really Hate 'Boyhood'
Last month, the chief film critics for the New York Times A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis released a list of The 25 Best Films of the 21st Century So Far. It's a wide-ranging and eclectic list, including world modern classics like Edward Yang's Yi Yi and Oscar winners like Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker alongside popcorn movies like The 40-Year Old Virgin and Mad Max: Fury Road. These lists are designed to "start conversations," and this one undoubtedly did, with many moviegoers dissecting the choices, sharing their own lists, and highlighting movies the two critics may have missed. (Really, no love for Step Brothers?)
One thing about the chatter around the list took me by surprise: People on the internet really hate the coming-of-age drama Boyhood.
Like, they fucking despise that movie. It's intense! Even A.O. Scott was startled by the vitriol, noting the response to the film's inclusion during the Reddit AMA he participated in to promote the list. When asked about some of the more "controversial" picks, and the way public opinion sways, he was quick to identify director Richard Linklater's sneaky divisive puberty opus.
"Sometimes critics are the last to be aware of such shifts in opinion," he wrote. "I had no idea the world (or at least some vocal folks on Twitter) had turned so hard against Boyhood and Million Dollar Baby. Tastes always change, and sometimes reverse. Critics are part of that process, but more often we're spectators and second-line analysts."
He's not wrong. The world -- or at least a large group of people who post their opinions about movies online -- has turned against Boyhood. But why that movie, specifically? How did it happen? What did that cute little kid Mason ever do to you?
On the surface, Boyhood is a sweet and harmless movie. A labor-of-love by Linklater, the director of beloved films like Dazed and Confused and Before Sunrise, the film is small-scale and intimate, a collage of carefully observed off-the-cuff moments that shares the same DNA as his indie breakthrough Slacker. It's got a great, heart-wrenching Patricia Arquette performance. It's got that scene where Ethan Hawke dad-splains Wilco. If you read any of the 274 "fresh" reviews of the film on Rotten Tomatoes, you've likely heard it's both funny and poignant.
The meta-conversation about the critical reception of Boyhood is not new. At some point between the film's acclaimed premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January of 2014 and the Academy Awards the following year in February, when the film lost Best Picture to Birdman, writers began to not only critique the film, but also discuss the conversation around it. "Why the Unanimous Praise for ‘Boyhood’ Is Bad for Film Criticism — and for ‘Boyhood'" read one headline. There were nuanced and thoughtful pieces about the film's treatment of race and gender, as well.
Essays like those certainly played a role in the great ongoing Boyhood debate. The online movie discourse moves quickly, especially surrounding Oscar front-runners -- just ask La La Land -- and Linklater's film was subject to the healthy backlash and inevitable backlash-to-the-backlash that's now a part of any Awards season media cycle. But, I don't think those are the responses -- found mostly on mainstream media publications, film-specific sites, and blogs -- that powered the most recent mini-dust-up.
To understand the pure disdain that a vocal sub-sect of the movie internet feels for Boyhood, it's probably best to start with a clip from Half in the Bag, a review-based YouTube show produced by Red Letter Media, a Milwaukee-based production company and YouTube channel with over 500,000 subscribers. The popular program, which currently raises $18,931 a month on membership platform Patreon, combines the trusty format of Siskel & Ebert with the irreverent humor of Mystery Science Theater 3000. (Perhaps fittingly, all three programs hail from the MidWest.)
As you'll see from the above clip, which was posted in January 2015 before the Oscars, the argument against the movie can be boiled down to one question: Did you know Boyhood took 12 years to make? Half in the Bag's two dry-witted hosts, Jay Bauman and Mike Stoklasa (who first rose to online fame with his Mr. Plinkett breakdowns of Star Trek and Star Wars), repeat the question over and over, mimicking the movie's proselytizing supporters and implying that the film's structural conceit -- it was filmed with the same actors over a period of 12 years -- is nothing more than a gimmick. A marketing hook. A trick.
Stoklasa and Bauman are hardly the first people to slam the movie on those grounds. (In their defense, the pair's negative full-length review of the film is a bit more nuanced.) But judging from Scott's AMA and other threads on Reddit, it's an idea that seems to have grown into a meme. One Reddit user even posed the video's question to Scott like it was some sort of logic jiu-jitsu move by asking, "Can you explain why Boyhood is a good movie without relying on the fact that it took 12 years to film?"
And it's not just a Reddit phenomenon. Take this Honest Trailer, for example: The first title card in the clip reads, "In 2002, Richard Linklater thought up the most ambitious gimmick in movie history." The parody also makes the weird joke that the film is somehow manipulating your sense of "nostalgia" by merely including Wii Sports, as if the actual pop culture items that existed at the time were planted as nefarious memory traps.
Along with the "gimmick" claim, it's a willful misreading of the work that's fundamentally uncharitable to Linklater, and speaks to a creeping cynicism -- even contempt -- towards artists online.
There's a populist element at play, too. The Honest Trailer video has a joke about Harry Potter series also being filmed with the same child actors over an extended period of time. You know, like Boyhood. It's a point that's been made by re-cut trailers, like the one above or this one from Slate, on YouTube before. In 2016, there was even a 78-minute mash-up video called Wizardhood, which appears to no longer exist online because of copyright reasons, that cut together clips from the Potter series into a feature-length tribute to Linklater's film. In the case of the Honest Trailer, the implication is clear: The Harry Potter series is the better achievement because, to use the phrasing of many commenters, it actually has a story.
In some ways, pitting Harry Potter against Boyhood is an odd narrative: The corporate-funded mega-franchise vs. the indie art project. But I think the positioning speaks to a larger truth about how movies are increasingly discussed in Reddit threads, YouTube comment sections, and Facebook pages. In the eyes of Boyhood-haters, the films in the Harry Potter universe -- along with other less consistently rewarded "genre" (or low-brow) fare like Marvel films, Christopher Nolan's Batman films, and The Fast and The Furious franchise -- still represent the "underdog" from a cultural stand-point. They may dominate the box office and even get overwhelmingly positivereviews, but awards like the Oscars and distinctions like the Times list remain out of their reach. Apparently, world-domination isn't enough.
As Scott pointed out in the AMA, it's not new for the cultural consensus to shift on a single film. He mentioned James Cameron's Avatar, but also think of the four-star reviews and accolades that greeted the Paul Haggis drama Crash, which is now, at least anecdotally, considered by many people to be a pretty embarrassing movie. Tastes change. Norms evolve. Media eco-systems crumble. But one thing will remain the same: Boyhood took 12 years to make, and people on the internet won't let us forget it.