In Scenic Routes, Mike D’Angelo looks at key movie scenes, explaining how they work and what they mean.
A few months ago, back when Richard Linklater’s Boyhood appeared to be the front-runner for Best Picture at this year’s Oscars, various complaints about the film began to surface. Some may have been sincere; some were almost certainly manufactured by rival studios; almost all of them were pretty dumb. Far and away the most ludicrous was a repeated assertion that anybody could make a masterpiece if they were allotted a dozen years to shoot three hours of footage. (Give it your best shot, cynics.) Others carped that Linklater’s 12-year concept was “just a gimmick,” as opposed to a structural choice designed to facilitate a meditation on the passing of time—a subject that’s fascinated Linklater for decades.
Less absurd was the charge that Boyhood is too damn white, especially given that it’s set entirely in Texas. Arguably, Linklater should have been more progressive in that regard, but the film doesn’t pretend to represent a universal experience, even if many critics chose to interpret it that way. Linklater had actually wanted to call the film 12 Years, and was forced to go with the more monolithic title in order to avoid confusion with 12 Years A Slave. Making some grand statement is not what he’s about.
But then there’s Boyhood’s one notable Latino character. About halfway through the movie—around 2009 in the timeline, I think—Mason’s mother (Patricia Arquette) casually tells Ernesto (Roland Ruiz), the young guy who’s working on the septic line in her backyard, that he’s smart and should be in school. This interaction is brief—24 seconds, to be exact—but it pays off, for better or worse, about an hour later, when Ernesto unexpectedly returns as the manager of a restaurant where Mason (Ellar Coltrane), his mom, and his sister, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), are eating, just before Mason heads off to college at the end of the movie. Even Boyhood’s staunchest defenders tend to concede that these two scenes are kind of gross, flirting with the notion of the Great White Savior who helps minorities realize their full potential. The restaurant scene is as weird and conflicted, though, as it is problematic. Take a look for yourself:
As far as I can tell, nobody’s asked Linklater about this character to date—not in a confrontational way, at least. He’s brought Ernesto up in interviews, but always as an example of how a moment that may be insignificant for one person can have a huge influence on another. He’s also confirmed that the callback was planned well in advance. “It’s rare that you get to cast somebody and say, ‘Hey, you’re going to play this and come back in a few years,’” he told Creative Screenwriting. “Even the guy who is working on the septic line that comes back as the assistant manager of the restaurant, I had to say, ‘Four years from now, we’re going to need you back.’” But nobody has questioned him about the wisdom of having the film’s sole Latino character do nothing except fix the white lady’s septic line and then thank her for changing his life. Since I’ve never seen a shred of evidence that Linklater is any way mean-spirited, I’m inclined to chalk this up to unconscious cluelessness, exacerbated by the difficulty of seeing the big picture while working on a project for a few weeks at a time over a dozen years. His idea about a tossed-off remark unwittingly having a major impact is laudable. He just didn’t realize how the racial component would come across.
At the same time, though, the way the restaurant scene actually plays out fascinates me. The first time I saw the film, at its Sundance premiere, something about it seemed off, but I had no idea what it was. Only on a second viewing did I take note of how little anyone responds to Ernesto’s expression of gratitude. Not only does Mom (that’s what she’s called in the credits) not remember him initially, she doesn’t perk up much at his story; Arquette, who’d been quite animated when talking about packing a moment earlier, just sits there with an expression that basically says: “Huh.” Watching the scene again now, it seems to me that she’s working to communicate something that’s extremely difficult without dialogue to assist her: Mom remembers Ernesto (barely), once he reminds her, but she has no specific recollection of telling him that he’s smart or that he should go to school. This remark that meant so much to him was such a tiny blip in her own life that it made no impression (and that’s how Arquette plays it in the earlier scene—offhand, spoken as she’s walking away to say goodbye to Mason and Samantha, who are leaving with their dad). The emphasis isn’t on this great thing she did, in the tradition of Stephen Biko enabled by Kevin Kline. Rather, it’s on the disorienting irony that she may have had more influence on this stranger, via a stray forgotten comment, than she’s had on her own two kids, who are both extremely “yeah, whatever.”
That doesn’t nullify the unfortunate aspect of this tiny “subplot” (too grandiose a word, really), but it does temper the ickiness somewhat. It’s problematic on a macro level, not on a micro level; as written, directed, and acted, the restaurant scene could scarcely work harder to avoid feeling like a moment of triumph or vindication for Mom. Even when Ernesto tells Mason and Samantha that they should listen to their mother, because “she’s a smart lady,” the compliment seems to fall on deaf ears. Coltrane doesn’t let Mason so much as raise an eyebrow, much less crack a smile—there’s no indication that he’s remotely impressed or moved, or that he even views Ernesto’s speech as more than an annoying interruption. It seems clear to me now that this scene is directly setting up the very next scene, which features Mom’s heartbreaking “I just thought there would be more” lament (which is the last we see of her in the movie; that’s literally her final line of dialogue). The cringeworthy white-savior aspect blinded me to the cause-effect relationship that Linklater intends between Ernesto’s thanks and Mom’s subsequent breakdown, so that all I came away with until now was a vague sense of something was not quite right about a moment that seems superficially uplifting. Had Ernesto been white, or had Boyhood featured a number of significant nonwhite characters, that intention would probably have been clearer. It’s a lapse, but maybe a forgivable one. When it comes to unconscious insensitivity, even 12 years to think about things may not be quite enough.