There’s a scene in Boyhood, Richard Linklater’s acclaimed new film, where three generations of the extended family chronicled in the story sit around one evening singing and playing guitar (I think it’s “The Old Black Crow”). They’re at the very modest rural house of the protagonist Mason’s paternal grandparents celebrating his 15th birthday, and the camera pans from face to face to reveal what they share as a family and what the culture of this family is. These are people who are just a generation or two from living country-music lives in country-music places. You just know their ancestors fought on the Confederate side in the Civil War (there’s also that name “Mason”) and that their ancestors were not plantation owners, slave owners, but poor whites. The scene contains something revelatory about a group of Americans—and while it brought tears to my eyes, I also knew it was a place I couldn’t enter.
Boyhood is not only the best movie many of us may see in 2014—it’s one of the least Jewish serious movies around. It is not just that there are no visibly Jewish characters, but that it depicts a world in which Jewish culture has left hardly any traces besides the Old Testament. Boyhood is about white-bread America, and its matter-of-fact-ness about this setting is part of its greatness. The film’s WASP-iness comes with the territory, which is middle-class Texas life. There are only a few African Americans and Asians on screen; more Mexican-Americans. After all, it was once their land.
The non-Jewishness of Boyhood is also in the particular problems of this family: Olivia, the mother, marries three times, first to a charming, feckless wannabe musician, then to two alcoholics. Olivia’s first husband, Mason Jr.’s father, Mason, left her to work on an Alaskan fishing boat and write music. Olivia’s third husband is a corrections officer. The kids go to college, but it’s assumed they’ll go within the University of Texas system to save on costs. Grandparents bestow birthday gifts of a hunting rifle and a personalized Bible. Snacks are white-bread sandwiches and celery stalks filled with peanut butter. There’s an evangelical church service that is presented head-on, without snickering. So is the Pledge of Allegiance, and—something I hadn’t known about—a shorter pledge to the State Flag of Texas. Not for nothing do they call it the Lone Star Republic.
This is not my slice of America, but it’s a very big slice. And it’s one of the first times it has appeared on screen in such straightforward profundity.
Linklater doesn’t think he’s smarter than his characters, or that we are. He is, after all, directing his own daughter, who plays Samantha. Nor does he think these people are purer or better than anyone else. They are just his people. Nor does Linklater judge America, though his characters sometimes do. Mason Sr. excoriates George W. Bush for the Iraq war, and Olivia’s third husband, whom we meet as a recently returned, sympathetic Iraq vet, claims his unit treated the Iraqis like fellow human beings but that the unit that relieved them undid their good work in three days.
The majesty of Boyhood consists in its taking for granted its American landscape in both its beauty and ugliness just as the greatest European movies take for granted theirs. Houston appears on screen as banal as it does in real life, though with its moments of beauty; the stupendously awful urban sprawl isn’t dwelled upon as any kind of extraordinary discovery, but neither is it ignored. Same for young and old Mason’s sacred space, the National Parks of Texas, particularly Big Bend, where the movie closes.
Boyhood shows us people who assume that life is a matter of working hard and taking the licks that fate brings you without whining. It also looks upon the world as a blessed place where good can happen and where it makes sense to ask, as Mason does, whether elves exist. One of the blessings Linklater celebrates is art—for this family, it takes the form of rock and country music and photography. Another is family love. There is an almost Tolstoyan grasp of human imperfection and the way families provide a space not only for grotesqueries but also for tolerance. (I happen to be re-reading War and Peace now, so the comparison comes faster than it might otherwise.) There’s sex in Boyhood, there’s a sense for the sweetness of young couples discovering their pleasure in each others’ bodies, but there’s little eroticism: white-bread America again. Mason’s Austin weekend trip with his high-school girlfriend Sheena includes going to hear country music and a visit to an all-night diner.
I began by saying I could not enter the space of Boyhood—and this is true. If I were to meet these characters in San Marcos, where Olivia teaches, I’d stick out no matter how much I tried to blend in. “Where are you from?” they would ask, also meaning, “what ethnicity are you—you look like you could be Mexican, but you have an East Coast accent and are clearly not from around here.” (They’d say the same to an Italian-American or Greek-American.) I don’t envy these lives, which are harder than mine. But I am in awe of Linklater’s compassion and even-handed humanity, which are the qualities in the American grain that offer the greatest blessings—for me as an individual, as an American, and as a Jew.
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