Film, Reviews

Notes on Boyhood & Its Awkward Shout Out to Migrant Workers

There are two scenes in this film that have no place in the story. In the first scene, Patricia Arquette’s character is discussing a broken pipe with a man who is trying to explain in his broken English that the pipe, which is literally in pieces, needs to be replaced. He then mentions that the pipe his colleague is standing on (which is not broken) would be a better fit. Essentially, he is trying to say, “Pipe no good. This pipe better.” I’m sorry to sound crude, but there wasn’t much discourse on the art of plumbing during this exchange, though it should have been obvious to anyone that the original pipe was busted and had to be replaced. It doesn’t take a genius to–I digress. Anyway, Patricia Arquette’s character asks if he is certain (just look at the damn pipe, lady) and seems impressed by his resolve. She tells him that he’s smart and decides to change his life by introducing the revolutionary idea of formal education. Maybe he can enroll at the local community college. But no, he works during the day; that would be impossible. Ha! Nice try, ignorant brown man. You can take classes at night since you’re not too tired from a day’s worth of physical labor. To be fair, it was a kind gesture, even if she recognizes his intellect in the most mundane way possible. I guess what bothers me initially about this moment is that it just seemed too innocent and too white savior for a supposedly enigmatic film about the finer details of boyhood. The truth is that a lot of migrant workers are talented, resourceful individuals. Even in the theater, I couldn’t help but blurt out, “Oh white people, save us,” because it was so insulting. She should have just asked him if he had been to school or something. You’d be surprised. This applies in any situation, not just to migrant workers. Don’t get me wrong; I know her character meant well and Richard Linklater is not part of the problem in this country. It’s obvious that Ethan Hawke’s character is allowed to express some of the more liberal views that the director has had over the last decade or so while making the film. But that doesn’t really excuse his good intentions. It’s lovely to want to shout out migrant workers in a meaningful way and offer sound advice. But just because someone has the common sense to observe that a shattered pipe requires fixing doesn’t mean they were waiting for a public service announcement. I know more Latinos should go to school, but there has to be another way of spreading the word, right? Anyway, I tried to let it go. It wasn’t important in the grand scheme of things. But then, it happens again. The family is having dinner at a restaurant years later to celebrate Mason’s high school graduation when they come across the same man from that fateful day. He proudly introduces himself as the assistant manager and proceeds to thank the mother for her advice because he ended up getting his associates degree and a better job. Then he mentions that he is in the process of obtaining his bachelors. Never mind that he seems to have completely lost his accent or the irony of working at a restaurant as an assistant manager. You don’t even need to go to college for that, let alone high school. It was like the film had suddenly turned into a recruiting video for Hispanics to enroll in college (because why didn’t they think of it first). It was completely unnecessarily for a film that, at times, struggles with its own grandiosity. Again, I don’t want to take away from the whole experience of the film, but white savior or not, those two scenes have broader implications that speak to the presumptuous nature of cultural bias.

 –N. David Pastor