So, this past week, I was able to go see two indie movies, which considering I don’t normally leave my house, is quite the feat. These have probably been the two movies I have been most excited about this summer, because they are two films about people trying to figure out their way in the world. Both of these films attack the story of a confusing life from two very different perspectives, and I would argue that Boyhood does a better job of that. Considering Richard Linklater is a movie writing/directing tour-de-force, this should not come as a surprise to anyone. Boyhood was the film the Guardian said was “far and away the best film I’ve seen at Sundance.” Contrast this to Wish I Was Here, and the absolutely horrible reviews it has gotten, and you will probably be surprised that I saw both of these films together, and I was excited for both. While Wish I Was Here tried to do too much, in its short screen time, Boyhood is the length of the shortest Lord of The Rings movie, and perhaps a little more mentally engaging. Let’s breakdown the two movies, and I will tell you why Wish I Was Here still is a great movie, that you should probably see at some point.
NOTE: There are potentially spoilers in here. Well I mean, all reviews have spoilers, however, I might spoil some important details. I apologize in advance!
Boyhood is a film shot in real time over a 12 year period. It is the bildungsroman of a boy named Mason, and his journey through his childhood, and off to begin his own journey. Considering Ellar Coltrane is not an actor, and was picked up for the role because his parents were artists, his acting is impressive in the movie. Mason is not the smartest child, he is quiet and reserved growing up. The movie does an amazing job, of changing the centering of the story as Mason grows up. For the first twenty minutes of the film, the movie could easily have been about his mother or his sister, as we get to see the conflicts that make up their lives as well as Mason’s. We watch Mason begin his journey, a helpless bystander to the things going on in his life. He watches his mother and father fight from the window when his father Mason Sr. (played by Ethan Hawke) returns from Alaska. We view the world through his eyes, the sounds of their arguments silent, but the anger they express is present.
Olivia, Mason’s mother (played by Patricia Arquette), is trying to hold the family together while also going to university to get a job that pays better so that she can support the family. Her character is probably one of the most interesting, and her story is extremely rich with trials and failures. Olivia, sees a series of unfortunate ex-husbands. Her first husband, Mason Sr. is a child dressed up like an adult, he drives a sports car, travels for work, and is still trying to find himself in the world. Her second husband, is one of her psychology professors, who ends up being an abusive alcoholic. The third ends up running into a similar angst, although it is never elaborated as to why. Throughout the movie Olivia, is protective of her children, and it is her performance as such that stands out. As the Mason Jr. prepare to move out of the house and off on his way to college, Olivia is left in tears, her life’s project now complete, and her only thoughts are “What now?”
The movie has a lot of “what now” moments. It is a piece of art that feels like it starts in the middle, and ends in the middle. In the end it does not try and give us an answer about what life should be, it only points to what life can be moving forward. Both Mason’s find themselves at new points in their lives, with Mason Sr. moving on to a new family, and Mason Jr. moving on to a new life in a new university with all of the possibilities for his life open. It is not the end of Mason’s story, it is just a new chapter in his life, and the first moment where he seems to be fully in control of his own life. He has a new space and a new chapter to create himself. Another moment in life moves on.
Wish I Was Here
Zach Braff’s first movie since Garden State is on its own also an existential movie about finding oneself. While I hate to compare it to Garden State in that the characters are actually somewhat different, the movies do focus on a time honoured space in cinema, that of the individual trying to find themselves in a world where they are largely unsuccessful. Braff’s kickstarter film features the story of Aidan Bloom, an actor who has been unable to really get his foot in the door in the world of acting in Los Angeles. Aidan’s life changes when his father’s cancer returns, and his father is no longer able to pay the bills for Aidan’s children to go to an Orthodox Jewish private school. Aidan is left with two options, either send the children to one of the worst rated public schools in the city for the end of their year, or homeschool them himself. Aidan ends up choosing the latter option, and instead tries his best to teach his children at home.
The best part of Wish I Was Here is by far its absurdism. While the movie has its serious undertones (Aidan needs to find a ‘real’ job, his father is dying, the kids cannot afford school etc.), Zach Braff punctuates every scene with a little bit of hilarity, from the weird sci-fi daydreams in the middle of important conversations, to Aidan’s brother Noah wearing a homemade alien spacesuit made for San Diego comic con to hear his fathers final words. While everyone is telling Aidan that he needs to get back to reality, it is really reality that has these crazy and arbitrary moments to it, where even a death can result in absurdity. Those scenes capture the goofy and very human relations that humans share with each other. The Bloom’s do not try and hide their quirks from each other, with Sarah Bloom (Aidan’s daughter) shaving her head at the beginning of the movie to make her more ‘modest’ to Tucker (Aidan’s son) carrying around a power drill with him wherever he goes. These moments punctuate the film, that otherwise would seem like a banal realism.
One of the other interesting points of the film are its critique of gender roles. Sarah ‘s(Kate Hudson), role as the breadwinning mother stuck in a sexist office space, rings sadly true. In a world (and even a country!) where gender inequality still reigns supreme, it was kind of fun to see a movie that not only flipped the role of the breadwinner, but had such a satisfying ending for the female lead. While a small victory, Wish I Was Here breaks down the traditional female plot device trope that so many movies refuse to rid themselves of.
The one drawback of Wish I Was Here is that it honestly tries to do too much. There are a lot of different interesting themes in the movie, the problem is that each of them could easily have deserved their own film. Sometimes Wish I Was Here feels rushed. I felt like it needed more time to properly resolve some of its plot points. Too many conclusions felt like they were there just for the purpose of tying up the story neatly. It would have been nicer if the film just let points be unresolved.
Films about characters trying to figure out their lives are not new. In fact, most good films ask the question: what does it mean to live in a confusing world and with other people? Searching for understanding, or figuring out ‘who we are’ are struggles we constantly grapple with in the hope that we find some sort of peace. Both of the films try to find answers to this question, one of which leaves us with this feeling that subjectivity is created constantly and throughout our lives (Boyhood), and the other tries to show us how we can rekindle that excitement in the world by opening ourselves to experience (Wish I Was Here). Both movies show the complex social webs that create the people we are, and ultimately, they give us a glimpse into what other people experience as that journey to self-discovery and enlightenment, or that real human connection that we are looking for. I have to say that Boyhood’s ending is by far my favourite. The movie starts with a step into a brand new world with possibilities just being created. Like the rest of the movie it focuses on a series of changes as opposed to being stagnant, whereas Wish I Was Here looks at someone whose life has somewhat stagnated, and watches them transform themselves.
Overall, both of these movies are great if you’re looking for other people who are also trying to find their way in life. Too often we dismiss literature/film as having no contextual basis for understanding our lives. When we begin to understand that stories are just other people framing their lives in new ways, we can come to appreciate it for what it is. All that we understand is a story, our lives are the stories we tell ourselves about the things that happen to us. There is no requirement to accept someone else’s truths as your own, however, if you’re looking for a new way of looking at your life, Boyhood and Wish I Was Here might have some partial truths.