Cast: Ellar Coltrane, Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette, Lorelei Linklater, Marco Perella
Director: Richard Linklater
Running Time: 2 hours 45 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Perhaps a more appropriate title for Richard Linkalter's latest film Boyhood would be "12 Years A Boy", not only because the writer/director (Slacker, Dazed and Confused, the Before series) shot and edited his picture over the course of 12 years, but also in terms of of the hyperbolic praise it's received, similar to Steven McQueen's Oscar-winning 2013 slavery epic 12 Years A Slave. While such an alternate title might seem like a cheap shot, there's something slightly unnerving about a film that's already been deemed an American classic on the festival circuit before even hitting theaters. Since most think it's critic-proof; the kind of thing that works as a personal experience rather than something one can pick apart analytically, what's been missing from most discussions about Boyhood is whether or not what's actually onscreen is anything more than average. Make no mistake, the story behind the making of the film is fascinating, and Linklater should be given credit for even embarking on such an endeavor. However, the rapturous responses seem predicated on two things; one, a knee-jerk enthusiasm for anything that challenges traditional cinematic form, and two, an individualistic sense of youthful recollection from the viewer.
In terms of precedent, Michael Apted's Up series and the works detailing Antonine Doinel from Francois Truffaut are the most immediate comparisons in that they accomplished similar things showcasing the confusion and joy of childhood and the uncertainty of adulthood. Boyhood, for all it's supposed originality, is on a second glance, not all that groundbreaking. Sure, no one has structured a film over the course of 12 years with the same actors in exactly this way, but understanding that there's a cinematic precedent is important before jumping into hyperbole. This isn't meant to unequivocally downplay Linklater's technical accomplishment here; it's just that there's an impetus, quite attractive, to shower overstated plaudits onto something simply on the basis of it's conceptual conceit. Secondly, the fact that viewers are experiencing a flurry of emotions over the course of the film's interminable, nearly 3-hour running time, is more indicative of subjective recollected memories than anything the film itself is actually revealing. At best, Boyhood apes nostalgia and cultural touchstones as a means of accessing our own forgetfulness regarding the passage of time. At it's worst, it's a meandering collection of home video sketches that hides behind it's "indie" credentials by refusing to show us something, anything, that would lull us out of a state of suspended slumber.
Ellar Coltrane plays Mason, the boy of the film's title, and at the outset, is a 6 year-old living with his single mother (Patricia Arquette) and older sister Samantha (Linklater's own daughter Lorelei) in a suburban Texas landscape that also makes room for an estranged too-cool-for school dad (Ethan Hawke), to randomly show up and drive the kiddies around in his GTO. Like all of Linklater's films, there's a scrappy, naturalistic feeling to the way the story (or lack thereof) plays out. Samantha belts out a Britney Spears song. Hawke's rebel father teaches the kids about contraception and how cool Obama is. A bunch of teenagers talk dirty and karate-chop pieces of wood in an abandoned building. Mason gets his hair cut by an alcoholic step-father. The result of the film's languid pacing, combination of nonprofessional and professional actors, and on the nose cultural music cues, means that Boyhood is often awkward and rarely engrossing. There's a ready defense for Linklater's unhurried approach, of course; something about how real life isn't a series of "high" and "low" moments as seen in the movies, but rather digressions that formulate identity early in life and shape the kind of person you will become. Unfortunately, real life isn't all that cinematically compelling, and if it is, Linklater has no interest in expanding upon it's possibilities. The mundaneness of everyday existence, the fact that we are gradually moving from infancy to death, is a profound notion as well as an entirely ordinary one. However, by draining his film of even an ounce of palpable danger or overt stylization, Linklater misses an opportunity to explore the contradictory impulses inherent in growing up; the wonder, insecurity, exhilaration, and terror of it all. Such concepts are either wholly absent or simply hidden under a lackadaisical "realistic" depiction of coming-of-age. This is perhaps due to Linklater's way of making his films largely free of narrative structure and visually observing characters interacting without forcing stylistic preoccupations upon the material. When he's firing on all cylinders, like in the excellent Before series, this hands-off approach to the visual and thematic aspects enhance, rather than detract, from the overall experience. Here, Linklater's flat visual style, static compositions, and lack of impressionistic details means that nothing really stands out in a film that desperately calling out for a dash of poeticism.
Boyhood has a few winning moments of insight and humor, but mostly it's a plodding affair devoid of dramatic investment. If one counters that this is precisely the point, and that Linklater is somehow subverting the coming-of-age formula, then the only rational response is "why should I care?" Why are we spending this amount of time with a kid and his parents growing and changing with the flow of time? What possible insights, whether spiritual, philosophical, or experiential, is the film imparting? The answer, rather disappointingly, is that it isn't imparting anything beyond the ordinary. But this, also, seems to be the point and yet another reason why people will inevitably point to the film as being critic-proof. Can you criticize something for being uneventful if that's what the filmmakers are going for? Had the same film been shot in a short amount of time with different actors or make-up telling the same exact story shot in the same exact way, it's very doubtful that the reception would be quite as euphoric. The fact of the matter is that seeing Coltrane, Arquette, and Hawke age in this particular manner somehow feels shocking and immediate to viewers. In reinforces our own mortality, and coupled with the film's sense of bringing back memories of one's own upbringing and development, creates a bottle effect that opens outward and taps into an emotional response. This response, aside from a few scattered scenes where it's clear the actors are going for a more emotional range, seems to come about largely from something outside objectivity. It's clearly not there on the screen (the acting, aside from Arquette and Hawke is largely stilted), and it's definitely not intrinsic within Linklater's filmic sensibilities. What it reveals, more than anything, is that Boyhood is a shining example of zeitgeist cinema. Much like Spike Jonze's Her from last year, it examples where we are now and how we process the world. Seeing young Mason grow up in a time before Facebook, Instagram, and Youtube and witnessing certain cultural signifiers (Nintendo Wii, pop songs, Harry Potter, hairstyle/clothing changes) creates a nostalgic sensation that can take even a mediocre film into the stratosphere.
Truthfully, lest one begins to think this is simply a tirade against the overwhelming positive response to the film rather than the merits of the film itself, there are numerous problems that have nothing to do with a cultivated response. For all the talk of ramshackle slice-of-life realism, there are numerous scenes that suggest a scripted contrivance that belies Linklater's method of operation. Moments involving a drunken step-father (a cartoonish Marco Perella), especially an abrupt flareup at the dinner table, are clearly meant to inject some dread into an otherwise danger-free picture and show the lack of solid male role models for Mason growing up. However, these scenes, partially because of the obvious way Linklater details the step-father's alcoholism, and also because of the pitch at which Perella plays the character, means they play laughably false. Other misguided scenes crop up once Mason is older too, including a gratingly on-the-nose exchange between him and one of his photography teachers inside a dark room. As a teenage Coltrane stares on blankly, the professor launches into an excruciating monologue about how the kid isn't going in the right direction, and even at one point inquiring "what do you want to do Mason? Who do you want to be?" If the film is trying to be self-reflexive about the tropes of the coming-of-age movie, then perhaps this is all brilliantly meta. More probable, however, is that this is a rather unfortunate example of overly scripting a scene in a film that purports to have an improvisational vibe. That's not saying a movie can't contain a combination of scripted and unscripted moments, it's just that the ones here that feel heavily written come across genuinely jarring. Perhaps the worst offender is a scene late in the film involving a Mexican construction worker turned restaurant employee, a callback of sorts to an earlier moment where Arquette (at that point a college professor) gives him some off-handed life advice. The way this restaurant scene plays out feels so awkwardly maudlin and false that one has to believe somehow Linklater is in on the joke, but it seems clear that all of this is meant to be taken seriously. Life is strange. Life is magical. The life advice you impart has a ripple effect. This is all well and good for a Lifetime Original movie, but here it feels like a grave miscalculation.
Apart from the degree of difficulty in terms of seeing the project to fruition, the only other bright spot here is Arquette's work as Mason's long-suffering mother. In fact, the film is as much about the parents' journey as Mason's, and even though Arquette is kept offscreen for large amounts of time, her combination of motherly compassion and searing frustration at not being able to have the life she desires means that her scenes are the film's best. Save for an ill-judged final moment that will likely have audiences sobbing, Arquette navigates her character's internal and external changes with grace, humor, and genuine pathos. Hawke, meanwhile, is doing that very Hawke thing of being off the charts energetic. He's fine here, but doesn't have many moments that allow him to be anything other than Ethan Hawke, which means his eventual transformation from a cool rouge to middle-brow minivan dad is something of a stretch. While it's undoubtably true that many men become squares once they getting older and have children, allowing Hawke to rock some grey hair and a silly mustache isn't exactly a novel way of revealing the cruel marches of time.
Boyhood is an ambitious misfire, a film that will be embraced and loved for it's unconventional creation and the feelings it evokes regarding youth, parenting, and aging, but that continuously reminds us that we are watching something unconventional. Though Linklater avoids title cards, his use of music (most egregiously with Coldplay during the opening shot) signals the different stages of the family's development in a way that feels calculated. Seeing Coltrane, and to a lesser extent Arquette and Hawke enter scenes unceremoniously having aged draws attention to the fact that the film was shot over a decade plus span, even if Linklater desperately tries to make the transitions as quiet as possible. Above all else, Boyhood simply reinforces the hackneyed notion that, as Hawke clumsily states during one visit with the kids to a bowling alley, "life doesn't give you bumpers." Gee thanks, dad.