Remember that film that followed a boy growing up in an economically precarious environment, that took us from the boy’s childhood through adolescence to early adulthood? The film about a boy whose father was (largely) absent and whose mother struggled with her situation, with getting older and feeling that she hadn’t done a good job of being a parent? That was told in relatively plot-free, naturalistic episodes that mostly began and ended in medias res? The film that most critics loved and that was nominated for most major awards?
In your mind, what colour was that boy?
I liked Boyhood when I saw it in 2014, but I was somewhat puzzled by the extent of the praise it got from some people back then; while I thought it was definitely striking in letting us watch the same actors over a dozen years, I simply didn’t see it doing all that much beyond this. Its story, characters and form, apart from the admittedly impressive length they’d gone to in order to be realistic, struck me as competent but generic, and its central character suffered from being at the centre of the film without being particularly interesting or unique. We’d already seen characters like him before: smart, sensitive, middle-class, and obviously white and male. Not that there’s anything wrong with any of these, but Boyhood‘s Mason felt like a stand-in for the director and for a moviegoer who’d look at him and identify with him, seeing him as an everyboy without sparing a thought to the stories we are told much more rarely, the boys that don’t get almost three hours dedicated to their utterly average coming of age.
Moonlight doesn’t have Boyhood‘s central conceit of following the same actor over the course of several years, but in terms of form and structure it is too similar to dismiss the similarities. However, it has two things that I found lacking in Boyhood: artistry and specificity. Linklater’s film isn’t exactly artless, but it draws so much of its appeal from its main feature, most of the rest pales in comparison. By comparison, Moonlight heightens its naturalism by means of cinematography and editing, giving an edge of intensity to its episodic coming-of-age story. It also gives us a much more subjective point of view – or perhaps it’s that its subject is much more specific than Mason, whose appeal lies much more in familiarity. With Chiron, Moonlight takes a character that is far from the reality of this moviegoer, at least, and makes us know him through his physicality, the way he holds himself and moves, the way he interacts with those he loves, and those that make his life hell (sometimes those are one and the same). We have to work to get to know Chiron, who is intensely internalised and has already built up a lifetime of defenses at a very young age, but this is a challenge worth taking.
I came away from Moonlight feeling that I’d seen something fresh and alive and real. Mason’s story in Boyhood is well told, but it’s a story and character so familiar, they skirt on the banal. Perhaps that banality is largely the film’s point, but its quasi-documentary realism felt much less alive than the more expressive naturalism of Moonlight. Even if we get three actors of different ages playing Chiron over the course of the film, as a character he feels more real, more there, more specific and more surprising than Mason ever does. Both of these boyhoods are told well, certainly, but even if Boyhood did something more or less unique in cinema conceptually, it still ends up more commonplace. I choose the particularity of Moonlight instead.