Patricia Arquette as Olivia Evans in Boyhood
Best Supporting Actress at the 87th Annual Oscars (2014)
“I just thought there would be more.”
Mason Evans Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) grows up in Texas, and deals with some classic childhood issues: peer pressure, romantic relationships, and a string of awful stepdads married to his mom Olivia (Patricia Arquette). At least she’s not a psychic who helps the police?
Boyhood is a movie that prioritizes small moments over grand themes, but I can’t help connect Olivia Evan’s character arc to the ultimate futility of the American dream. Olivia does everything right. A single mom, she moves her kids to Texas so that she can get an education, and she ends up with all of the things that she’s “supposed to” aspire to: a house, a career, kids who are able to launch. But none of it is enough. She’s “house-poor,” spending way too much on her mortgage, and she’s alone, after a series of shitty husbands that initially seemed like nice guys, but turned out to be abusive alcoholics. We see her kids going to college as finally leaving the nest, but Olivia sees one of the only things that gives her life meaning flying away. It’s striking that lurking in the background of a film all about coming of age, and finding oneself, we have this story of a life that feels made of nothing.
Phew, that’s intense, so let’s get a little bit lighter: the thing that I love most about Olivia is that she’s no Super Mom. We see several times that she’s got a huge capacity for empathy: like the time when Mason’s horrible step-dad gives him a shitty haircut, and she’s incredibly affirming of Mason’s stress over what many parents might dismiss as minor. But Olivia is often consumed with the stressors of her life, in a way that makes her distant as a parent. She’s frazzled, and impatient, and turns to nagging instead of communicating. It’s a nice picture of what life is really like for a lot of parents, who want to be incredibly loving to their children, but instead have to live in reality.
Patricia Arquette is perfect casting for this movie: she has a normie vibe, but at the same time, she’s a distinctive individual. And hers is the performance that best delivers on the premise of the movie: we occasionally drop in on her and mostly see her through Mason’s eyes, but there’s still a strong sense that she’s a person with a rich life. Arquette imbues her with a lived-in feeling: you know that things are happening to her character, even when Oliva is off-screen.
There are a couple specific elements of Arquette’s performance that stand out. She really embodies a harried parent, with her hoarse yelling, and her barely restrained annoyance. Arquette also makes Olivia quite funny: and not in the way that a comedian is funny, but in the way that your friend’s mom is funny. She’s wry, and playful, and a little corny. Most importantly, Arquette never tries to muscle her way to the front of a scene: she’s able to create a fully realized character, without snatching screentime.
Boyhood’s whole gimmick is that it was filmed over more than a decade, with the same actors, so when you see these people growing up, changing hairstyles, etc., it’s not make-up, but actual aging. To my mind, the movie’s not all that compelling as a film, but the gimmick really does it make worth a watch. It’s very similar to the experience of having cousins that you see once a year, and watching their lives change in a very passive, sporadic way. And being the same general age as Mason, I love all the nostalgia (the Lady Gaga/Beyonce Telephone music video! Wii Sports!). Beyond that, it’s pretty long, and has a lot of men yelling, and kids being mean to each other, and a very weird D plot where Olivia tells a Latino laborer working on her house to get an education, and he later says that she changed his life, yeesh. So I’d recommend it more as an experience than a particularly great watch, but it’s worth checking it.
Was the Oscar deserved?
Yes, this is a standout performance.