As Esquire magazine discovered a little too late, nobody wants to hear about “what it’s like to grow up white, middle class, and male” in today’s America – especially not during Black History Month. Esquire’s current cover story is about a Trump-supporting 17-year-old from Wisconsin in the era of #MeToo and toxic masculinity, and has been met with Twitter outrage and conservative counter-outrage. “Well, they don’t yet have a middle-class, teen, white boy month,” observed one Fox News pundit. Perhaps they should go to the movies a bit more. It’s been middle-class, teen, white boy month there for years, but now nobody wants to hear about it.
Recent confirmation of this comes from Ben Is Back, a would-be Oscar shot starring Julia Roberts, due for UK release on 15 March. It has taken just $3m at the box office since it opened in the US in December. Roberts plays angst-ridden mother to Lucas Hedges, who comes home from rehab for Christmas unexpectedly. He became addicted to opioids after a snowboarding accident, then got in with the wrong crowd. “If you were black you would be in jail right now,” observes Hedges’s black stepfather – a line that pretty much bursts the movie’s white, privileged bubble.
Audiences and awards panels were recently unmoved by a similar story –Beautiful Boy, based on the twin memoirs of a teenage meth addict and his father, played by Timothée Chalamet and Steve Carell. Again, it is a painful, tender drama, led by one of the hottest young actors out there. But maybe people found it hard to feel sorry for an affluent Californian kid with loving parents and his pick of college places.
Carell, incidentally, also had his solo Oscar shot this season, with the mawkish fantasia Welcome to Marwen, in which women band together to heal his traumatised soul. Again, it bombed. As did White Boy Rick – a true-crime thriller about a young, white fish out of water in a predominantly African-American underworld – hence the title. In real life, Rick took to crime like a duck to water, and was eventually arrested for trying to shift eight kilos of cocaine, but hey!
Deliberate or not, the subtext of these stories is: “It shouldn’t happen to a boy like this” – a rich boy, a beautiful boy, a white boy (even a poor one). Sure, the opioid crisis has killed millions, but when it affects Lucas Hedges, now that’s a real tragedy. It’s not anybody’s fault they’re born white and male, and their suffering is no less traumatic or real. But the fact is, nobody’s going to see the movies. We’d rather see Hedges and Chalamet as gay characters (in Boy Erased and Call Me By Your Name, respectively) or as useless boyfriends to a more interesting female (both in Lady Bird). The tide is not currently in their favour. And as with Esquire’s cover, maybe they no longer represent America.