Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Boyhood: a theological film review

Monthly I publish a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 85 plus films later, here is the review for November 2014, of Boyhood.

A film review by Steve Taylor

“The good news is that you’re feeling stuff.”
Father to son in Boyhood

We have either all had one or observed one.

I refer to boyhood: that process by which a child grows into an adult. “Boyhood” the movie follows Mason from age five to eighteen. Through his eyes we experience broken marriages, domestic violence, bullying and various male rites of passage deemed essential to contemporary Western cultural life. We face the pain and potential of becoming adult.

“Boyhood” was twelve years in the making, twelve short stories, each written over the shooting period. It was collaboratively, director and actors together shaping the narrative direction.

Director Richard Linklater is known for movies including “Before Sunrise,” “Before Sunset,” “Before Midnight.” Each of the three “Before” movies focused on one twenty-four hour period.

Each explored generational rites, earning Linklater a reputation as the definitive cinematic capturer of 20-something contemporary culture, a visual Douglas Coupland.

In “Boyhood,” that one day becomes thirteen years. Academics call it longitudinal studies, repeated observations of the same variables over long periods of time. They also call it particularity, in which the focus on the singularity makes accessible what is universal. It’s impossible to watch “Boyhood” without thinking of your own becoming of age.

Each of the “Before” trilogy also features Ethan Hawke, who in “Boyhood” faces his own need to grow, from 20-something to father of Mason (Ellar Coltrane) and his older sister, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater). She is also Linklater’s daughter. After the first three years of filming, she wanted out, asking her director father to find a way to kill her “Boyhood” character.

If Linklater is master of the capture of contemporary culture, then what are we seeing as we look in the “Boyhood” mirror? Reflected back are images of developing technology, the seduction of education, the corrosive power of alcohol, the potential of parents no matter life’s circumstances.

The theological notes are intriguing. Good news, a phrase rendered cliché and clunky by so many Christian churches, becomes in “Boyhood” the appreciation “that you’re feeling stuff.” It sets up the final scene in which Mason asks if we seize the moment? Or do the moments seize us? Hence good news becomes feeling the experiences of the now.

It is an intriguing attempt at theology, given that growth over time, grasped through a sense of unfolding memory lies at the movie’s core. This is best depicted by Mason and Samantha’s mother (Patricia Arquette), as she faces the adulthood of her children.

“This is the worst day of my life. I knew this day would come, except why is it happening now? First I get married, have kids, end up with two ex-husbands, go back to school, get my degree, get my masters, send both my kids off to college. What’s next? My own funeral?”

For her to experience the now is news more bad than good. Which perhaps is the real message of “Boyhood.” That growing up is for adults.

Rev Dr Steve Taylor is Principal at the Uniting College for Leadership and Theology, Adelaide. He writes widely in areas of theology and popular culture, including regularly at

Posted by steve at 08:51 PM

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Hunger Games and atonement theology: a short film reflection

This post has been further developed into a 500 word film review for Touchstone magazine here.

Hunger Games is a deeply disturbing movie. The movie is set in a future in which each year, 24 children are selected to fight in a televised death match. Roman Gladiatorial style human-tertainment is repulsive enough applied to adults, but to conceive of it for children takes a particular chilling imagination.

To live in a society in which children are sacrificed annually for the sake of peace beggars belief. That said, it should make worthwhile discussion for those who hold to a Christian faith, have just journeyed through Easter and believe in the sole primacy of substitutionary atonement – Jesus dying as a substitute for others.

The Hunger Games is built on substitution, the willingness for some to die for the peace of all. Is this really the best, the only way, that God could conceive to deal with human rebellion?

What is interesting is how the actions of the heroine, Katniss Everdeen, offer other ways to frame atonement, in particular the scene in which Katniss buries her friend, Rue Roo.

(Substitution is only one of four better known understandings of the cross held through church history; the other three being Christus Victor, satisfaction and Abelard’s moral theory of atonement).

The flowers laid so lovingly on the chest of Roo began a moment that sparked a riot among those watching. Grief stricken, they protest against the powers and forces that oppress them. In Katniss, we see a desire to live differently, a questioning of the values that shape her world, a willingness, even unto death, to seek another world of possibility. Her act, the laying of the flowers, spark a communal desire for freedom.

On Easter Sunday, I was part of a church service in which the cross was flowered. Flowers laid lovingly (yes on an empty cross, not an dead body). This is the possibility buried (pun intended) in Easter, a questioning of the values that shape our world, a willingness, even unto death, to live differently, to work toward another world of possibility.

All of which refuses to be futuristic sci-fi. On the way home one of Team Taylor wondered if the way our planet today treats the poor in Africa is much different from The Hunger Games. You could sense the ache – that in our generation, justice and equality will be made concrete. May the flowers she, and so many others, laid on the cross this Easter, spark a very different sort of atonement, a renewed willingness to make plain “God’s Kingdom come, God’s will be done on earth, as in heaven.”

Further posts on film and atonement:
– Never let me go: atonement theology at its best and worst here
– Inception: dreaming of atonement here
– Harry Potter as a Christ figure here.
– Holy week atonement theologies here.
– Atonement theologies: a short summary here.
– Edmund Hillary and atonement here.
– and a sermon I preached on atonement, referencing Whale Rider and Edmund Hillary, made it into this book (Proclaiming the Scandal of the Cross: Contemporary Images of the Atonement), a really practical resource, filled with atonement sermons, none of which are substitutionary in tone. Me alongside CS Lewis, Richard Hays and Brian McLaren! 🙂

Posted by steve at 09:40 AM

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

film review: Red Dog

A 500 word (monthly) film review by Steve Taylor (for Touchstone magazine). Film reviews of the most common contemporary films, each with a theological perspective, (over 60) back to 2005 can be found here.

Red Dog. A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

At first glance, “Red dog” is a delightful movie, suitable for adults and children, a heart warming mix of human life and canine love.

A stranger arrives in a strange town. Seeking life, knocking on the door of the local pub, instead he finds himself beside the bedside of a dying dog.

Around the bedside, he hears the stories. This is no ordinary dog. This is Red Dog.

The plot is a storytellers delight. The pace is well-varied, the suspense genuine. The stories interweave, lives threaded together, each story offering a different slice of Red Dog’s life – his arrival, his elevation to dog for everyone, his finding of his true master, his role as match-maker and life-saver.

The stories produce some laugh out loud moments of sheer delight, the fights between Red Dog and Red Cat worth the ticket price alone.

Red Dog is based on a true story, of a real life statue, erected in 1979 in Dampier (an outback mining town in the Pilbura area of Western Australia). It relies on the skilled acting of Koko (playing Red Dog) and definitely panting for an Academy nomination. While Australian in accent, location and plot, Kiwi audiences will appreciate seeing a familiar face, Keisha Castle-Hughes, playing veterinary assistant become wife and mother. And in the statue of Red Dog, they will catch a glimpse of the famous Tekapo statue of the Shepherds Dog.

While at first glance a delight, a more closer look reveals a glimpse of the poor and pale reflection that is White Australia.

In a final climatic speech, as the town waits beside Red Dog’s bed, the “Pommy”, the “general” and the “politician” are contrasted with one’s mining “mates.” The speech lauds the values of loyalty and generosity, the need for a person to understand their land, to appreciate the red dust of the outback. It is a fascinating summary of so many values of Australian culture.

Ironically, sadly, the faces of those listening are all white, and the “Hear, hear” all European in accent. Their is no sign of, nor respect for, indigenous Australians, who for thousands of years before the arrival of white people, lived and loved in this red dirt.

One wonders what Red Dog, lauded for being the friend of all, would make of the absence of indigenous Australia. Surely in a plot-line based on multiple stories, it would have been possible to include at least one story of culture-crossing and the gifts and insights of the first inhabitants of the outback?

Another sinister reflection shimmers in the heat haze, that of the place of mining in Australian culture. “Red Dog” is a window into the loneliness and social dislocation that drives the Australian mineral boom and the industrialised transport lines that stain the beauty of the Outback. It is mining that is in fact driving a two-speed economy in danger of poisoning any Red Dog in their ability to be a friend for all.

Posted by steve at 05:11 PM

Monday, November 30, 2009

film reviews: topp twins, earth whisperers, blessed, up, an education

The assignment: 500 words, monthly, offering a Christian perspective on contemporary film, paid, for Touchstone (Methodist) denominational magazine. Here are (some more of: Four holidays, Doubt, Gran Torino, Pink Panther 2 already posted here) my 2009 reviews for the year to date.

The Topp Twins. Untouchable Girls. This is a joyous movie, a healthy yodel to life well lived. Centre stage are Jools and Lynda Topp, filmed in concert, singing their songs, reminiscing among friends, telling the stories that have made them one of New Zealand’s most recognisable entertainers … for more

Earth Whisperers/Papatuanuku. Confession time. Watching Earth Whisperers/Papatuanuku increased my global footprint … for more, including film church discussion guide

Blessed. “Blessed” is a gritty exploration of parenting today … for more

Up. Get down to Up. Take your children. Then ask your neighbour’s grandchildren. Whatever you do, do not forget your church leadership team … for more

An education. “An education” is a movie about a moment. It captures a life coming of age, a decade poised on the threshold of sex, drugs and rock and roll and the intellectual struggle between the school classroom and the university of life. The result is a movie so satisfying it is easy to lose sight of what is essentially a sordid tale … for more

Posted by steve at 04:50 PM