Starring Ellar Coltrane, Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette & Lorelei Linklater
Directed by Richard Linklater
Written by Richard Linklater
Produced by Richard Linklater, Cathleen Sutherland, Johnathan Sehring & John Sloss
Cinematography by Lee Daniel & Shane Kelly
Music by Various Popular Artists
Edited by Sandra Adair
Hello, friends. Yes, I am back. After many false starts, undelivered promises & procrastination-involved setbacks, I am finally here to think way too hard and text-scream about feature films once again. Be afraid, y’all. Because while I was away on my year-long sabbatical, I spelunked in the deepest caverns of film history, and I’m armed to the teeth with new perspective. However, the lack of posts in 2014 was borderline inexcusable, so to make up for lost time, I’ve picked quite a doozy of a diatribe for my triumphant return to the Blogrealm – a doozy of a film, to be sure. This essay I’m about to unfold may cause lots of angst, consternation and outright insufferable rage out there in the filmiverse, but, fellow cinephiles…please know I do this for you. It’s something which must be done. And I’m here to do it big.
Perhaps no film in the past decade has been as gloriously overhyped yet so dramatically underwhelming as Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. Here it stands as an acclaimed film, a film which critics have almost unanimously described as “groundbreaking”, “breathtaking”, “daring”, “epic,” and other superlatives, yet at its core is a film which not only fails to entertain on a purely cinematic level, but also misses the entire point its admittedly intriguing concept promised to deliver from the get-go. It’s a film with grand ambitions, but not nearly enough dramatic heft to live up to them. It’s a film from a genuinely talented director which feels out-of-touch with the generation it’s depicting. It’s a film which feels completely flat and is devoid of any stylistic nuances. Basically, Boyhood is kind of like a Phantom Menace of indie cinema – profoundly exciting on paper, likewise profoundly disappointing in execution.
But obviously, this is an unpopular opinion – one which just might get me hundreds of unhappy & dissenting comments, emails & messages (assuming anybody reads this diatribe). How could I possibly say so many bad things about Boyhood – a movie generally described as a heartwarming masterpiece of modern cinema; an intimate portrayal of life, maturity & existence on a pure, human level? Am I heartless, cynical asshole just looking to shit all over a solemn piece of epic filmmaking? Do I simply hate Richard Linklater’s films and just want to see him fall on his face, no matter how objectively great his films may be? Am I a horrible troll just looking for blog views? Have I simply LOST MY GODDAMN MIND???
The answer to all these questions is, of course, a resounding No. I am not any of those things. (Well, I’m not so sure about that last one.) I love cinema, I love human expression, I love being reduced to tears at the sheer beauty of magnificent art unfolding in front of my face, intimating the dreams & realities of life, death, love, hate, & the rest of the soul’s deepest unknown mysteries. Dat’s dat shit to me. I also love the films of Richard Linklater – I happen to find him to be a very honest, intuitive filmmaker, whose films range from a large palette of personal, broad, experimental, mainstream, and other styles. Waking Life is one of my favorite films of all time, a truly jaw-dropping experience in mind-expanding cinema. A Scanner Darkly is an expertly crafted film, surreal & thought provoking while also being funny & disturbing in equal doses. Slacker, Dazed & Confused, Bernie…these films were made by no slouch. Linklater’s filmography is by no means perfect, but he’s certainly not a hack filmmaker. I went into this movie with respect for Linklater’s work, and I can genuinely say that I WANTED to like Boyhood with all my movie-loving heart.
So what, pray tell, could possibly be my HUGE fucking problem with Boyhood?
That answer in itself is simple: It’s really just not as good as it’s been blown up to be. In fact, it’s actually highly flawed. Please note that I didn’t say the movie SUCKS, or that it’s completely worthless – there is some genuine merit to this film, which I will certainly discuss at length later. I acknowledge it has a unique place in cinema history, and says some very meaningful things about family, parenting & the human experience. However, given the reception it’s received & the actual quality of storytelling going on here, well…it certainly ain’t Shakespeare. Yet for some inexplicable and unexplained reason, all of moviedom has resorted to shoving this movie up into the “All-Time Great” lexicon, touting it as a “modern masterpiece” and hailing it as a “groundbreaking event in cinematic history”. Then when you see the movie, it’s just so plain, unadventurous & stale over the course of its nearly 3 hour(!!!) running time that you wind up zoning out in the movie theater wondering if you’ve fallen victim to some kind of giant marketing pyramid scheme. Watching events play out in Boyhood is akin to watching paint dry – the humdrum pacing, the boring, uninteresting cinematography, the wooden and hokey acting & writing…this certainly does not seem like any groundbreaking cinema classic I’ve ever seen. It’s just mind-boggling how much film critics are jizzing their pantaloons over this honestly boring film – just what exactly is the big fucking deal here?
Well, to answer THAT question, it’s going to take a little more time & in-depth analysis. Let me begin by delving into the film itself:
Boyhood is the story of Mason (played by newcomer Ellar Coltrane), an average suburban boy with divorced parents (Ethan Hawke & Patricia Arquette) and an older sister (played by the director’s own daughter Lorelei Linklater) growing up in the heart of turn-of-the-21st-century America. Mason goes to school, fights with his sister, ogles scantily clad women in underwear magazines with his friends, and generally lives your normal, everyday suburban life. (Sounds enthralling, right?) His dad comes to visit every now and then, taking them off to do fun things like bowling while Mom lays down the law at home. Mason’s mom is a hard-working woman raising two rambunctious kids on her own, and seems to constantly date drunken assholes who unsuccessfully try to act as father figures for Mason as he gets older. Meanwhile, Dad is a free spirited drifter type, driving around in a cool car and insisting on always being the “fun dad” around his kids. We follow Mason throughout his life, watching him go to school, hang out with friends, date girls, smoke weed while pondering the mysteries of life, and other generic things humans do.
(Notice how I never used the word “but” at any point while describing this film’s story? Remember that for later.)
As the film progresses on, we see Mason literally grow up before our eyes – the same actor, Ellar Coltrane, physically growing older as the movie unfolds. Richard Linklater’s vision for the film – indeed, the entire gimmick the film is based around – is that we are going to follow this one kid throughout his life, and watch him actually grow and change as the film chugs along. An entire human life observed over the course of a few hours. Like, WOAH man! Actually using the same person, and like, going back every so often to film more stuff? Sounds AMAZING, DARING and GROUNDBREAKING, right???
Hey, have you guys ever heard of a series of documentary films called the Up Series? It’s really great. It started in 1964 and chronicles the lives of 14 different individuals, starting from age 7 and periodically checking in on them throughout their lives as they grow older. In fact, it’s still continuing up into the present day – the latest in the series, 56 Up, aired in 2012. All the individuals participated voluntarily, and it’s generally considered to be one of the best documentaries ever conceived, depicting in extreme detail the trials, tribulations & evolutions of several human lives. If you haven’t checked it out you should really give it a look, it’s a really fascinating, insightful & comprehensive view into what it is to be a modern human being.
So then, Boyhood took that idea and spun it into a fictional story. Um…whoopee?
Everywhere you look, people are jawing on about the “12 years” deal. “The movie took 12 years to make!” “It’s a masterpiece, it took 12 years to make!” “12 years, 12 years, 12 years!!!” The movie poster even does us the favor of reminding us that the film was “12 years in the making”. Literally every time I hear somebody describing the movie to somebody else, the phrase “it took 12 years to make!” inevitably comes up in the conversation – as if this single defining factor was the only important detail in the quality of the film itself. Well, here’s the thing, my friends, and I cannot emphasize this point enough:
Just because a movie takes a long time to make does NOT mean it’s automatically good.
In all seriousness, I consider this to be the cinematic equivalent of people going on & on about how 50 Cent got shot 9 times back in the days when he was first getting famous. I don’t care about how many times the guy got shot – all I really want to know is, how good of a rapper is he??? (Editor’s Note: Not a very good one, as it turns out.) Now, please don’t confuse my point here: I know filming a movie over the course of 12 years and waiting for your cast to age is a risky move. I understand it inherently makes the movie meaningful because it’s a catalog of a (somewhat) real person’s life. I comprehend the boldness & cinematic significance of doing such a thing, & I applaud Linklater, a director whom I respect, for doing something genuinely ballsy. But what I’m saying is, the movie itself – the story, the characters, the performances, the EVERYTHING – still needs to be held up to the same standard of quality by which you’d judge any other movie, ESPECIALLY if you’re going to be sticking the G.O.A.T. title on it. I don’t give a damn how long the movie took to make, quite frankly – if it’s boring and filled with stilted dialogue & generic cinematography, it’s not going to be much fun to watch! I watched this movie the same way I would watch any other movie, and let me tell you, most of the movies I’ve seen that I would regard as “cinematic classics” are MUCH more entertaining than this one. I guarantee you if Linklater made this same exact film – everything exactly the same, right down to the last detail – but made it over the course of a few months with different actors playing Mason at different ages, it would NOT be met with the same level of esteem it’s currently being treated with. In fact, I’m certain a fair amount of critics would label it as an embarrassing fiasco.
You see, the whole “aging factor” built up around this movie’s hype machine should just be a part of what it has going for it, an addition to the overall focus & plot progression of the movie, NOT the sole purpose of the movie itself. Yeah, Ellar Coltrane ages before our eyes in the movie – but what the fuck else happens? What struggles does he go through as a character, what tough decisions does he have to make the drastically impact the course of his life, possibly shaping the type of man he chooses to be? What do we get out of living through these experiences with him? The unfortunate thing about Boyhood is…apparently, not a whole hell of a lot.
In the Up Series, you see actual human lives grow & develop in realistic, genuinely interesting ways. One of the kids, Neil, lived arguably the most unpredictable life of all the kids – he was living in a squat and cruising around the countryside by the time he was 21, having dropped out of college and living a carefree lifestyle. Now he’s an English politician, imagine that. Then there’s Symon, who had an absentee father and jumped around from a charity home to his depressed mother’s house…sheesh, that already sounds traumatizing. Suzy came from a wealthy background, had divorced parents and dropped out of school at 16 to move to Paris, and even though she had a negative view of marriage and being a parent, she eventually did both and found new positive meaning in her life. You know…stories. Actual, real life decisions affecting outcomes, viewpoints being challenged and turned around by life experiences. This is the stuff of real life & drama! So, to say that Boyhood, a 3-hour long movie where nothing happens is “daring” because it shows how “boring” real life is, is not only exploiting a lazy creative crutch, it’s just a plain & simple fallacy.
Don’t get me wrong. Things happen in the movie…it’s not like Mason just sits around on his ass the whole time. But the problem is – and this is my MAIN PROBLEM with the film Boyhood – nothing of significant dramatic importance happens in the story. Not a single story development with that real element of human weight, the tension that comes with facing a problem & making a difficult decision about how to overcome it. There’s never a moment in the film where Mason has to ask himself a difficult question (other than “What college do I want to go to?” which makes for intensely compelling cinema, let me tell you) or face an unforeseen challenge, one which makes him come to terms with something he’d rather not have to come to terms with. Basically what I’m saying is, there’s no conflict. There’s nothing in Boyhood to make us root for Mason’s character, other than the fact that this is the kid we’re gonna be following around for the next 3 hours.
Now I know what some of you out there might be thinking: “Well, that’s like, the point of the movie, man! Life just happens, life isn’t like a movie, real life doesn’t have significant dramatic weight behind it, man!” And to that I say, you’re right – life isn’t a movie, and it doesn’t have those dramatic embellishments going on all the time, and Linklater’s film does a very good job of capturing that. The thing is – and I’m just going to be blunt here – that doesn’t make for very compelling storytelling. You see, if I wanted to experience something just like real life, I’d just…walk out of the theater and go experience real life. I HAD a boyhood man, and a pretty typical one at that – I’ve LIVED this shit already, and I don’t need to see some other kid’s boring life in my movie – ESPECIALLY if that other kid’s life is completely fictional, like this kid’s! When I go to a movie, I’m looking for something which is a reflection of life – not necessarily life itself, but rather, an interpretation of what life is like. I’ll tell you this right now: this movie is called Boyhood, and there’s not one moment in the film – NOT ONE – where Mason cries. He doesn’t shed a single tear, about anything – his cat doesn’t die, he doesn’t flunk a test he really wanted to do well on, he never seems distraught over the fact his stepdads are all drunken assholes. Hell, he doesn’t even fall down and skin his knee! In a film about a single human being, we never see that human being partake in one of the most ubiquitous human experiences of all: crying. THAT, to me, is a huge problem with Boyhood, and one which may appear trivial to some, but to me, sets an important precedent for how this film should be judged: it’s an idealistic vision of life, not a realistic one.
I’m NOT saying Mason should have been an overemotional sap who cries buckets at every unfortunate turn – what I am saying is, there should have been at least ONE moment in his life where he had to cope with some seriously heavy shit. I don’t care how humdrum or boring you might consider your life to be – there’s at least one moment in all of our lives where something was so horribly fucked that we weren’t sure how life could ever be the same afterwards. Whether it be the death of a friend or family member, getting in a horrible accident, being abused by a drunken asshole stepdad, or even something shocking like discovering you’re gay and not knowing how to deal with it socially, there are defining moments in all of our lives which force us to come to terms with something uncomfortable, and define us as growing & changing human beings. Hell, they could’ve had Mason be the victim of extreme bullying & alienation, offering the opportunity to explore Mason’s reaction to such treatment AND make a statement about how cruel & ruthless modern kids can be to each other. Plus, it would give the audience something to empathize with Mason on and emotionally connect to! What I’m saying here is, we NEED those “buts” – the instances in the story where something comes along and flips the script for our protagonist. “Mason wanted to make friends at school, BUT -” “Mason decided to make the chess team, BUT -” “Mason was riding his bike down a steep hill blindfolded with no handlebars, BUT -” there are no “buts” in Boyhood, just a bunch of “thens”. Quite frankly, this movie needed quite a few more “buts”.
And yes, there is “drama” in the movie, with Mason’s mom constantly shacking up with drunken assholes over & over again while said drunken assholes throw things at the dinner table and overdramatically declare, “I HATE SQUASH!!!” The sequence I’m referring to involves Mason, his mother, sister and step-siblings being violently harassed at the dinner table by Drunken Stepdad #1, who openly drinks hard liquor at the table and throws plates on the ground, commanding his kids to clean it up. Aside from the hokey performance from Drunken Stepdad, I would honestly give a scene like this a little more praise since there’s actually something happening…if only it weren’t so manipulative and one-dimensional. This scene is designed to make us pity Mason and his family, and feel some sort of empathy towards them in their tragic human plight. But the problem is, these experiences don’t really seem to have any traumatic or life-changing effect on Mason, other than being somewhat of an inconvenience. We never see him struggle with these issues, so there’s no reason for us to care. There’s never a scene where Mason lashes out at Daddy Drunkman, or in any way for that matter, other than the occasional stink eye from a distance. It’s mostly happening to his mom – in the end, she’s the one being abused and treated terribly by a drunken asshole, not Mason. These scenes of familial strife don’t add anything to the overall narrative. Mason doesn’t learn anything from these experiences, and if he does, we certainly aren’t made aware of what it is. There’s no dimensionality or deeper implications, and therefore, nothing to connect with or ruminate on beyond a superficial surface level.
Over the course of Boyhood’s nearly 3 hour running time, there is not a single moment I could describe as profoundly significant, or challenging to Mason’s character in any way. Sure, Mason’s mom keeps dating horrible men, and there’s a (very) brief scene where Mason gets (sort of) bullied, and Mason’s girlfriend breaks up with him in high school, but these problems are meager at best – and what’s worse, they’re not treated with any sort of weight – they kind of just happen, and then…yeah. Mason just sort of goes along with it. Big whoop. If we as audience members are supposed to be projecting ourselves into Mason’s position and feeling real empathy for this character, then isn’t it a contradiction to make that position something stale, predictable & unchallenging? Anytime Boyhood presents an opportunity to become truly engaging to the audience, the scene changes and the next uneventful highlight of Mason’s life occurs. This is my main, main problem with Boyhood – it’s utterly, horribly, almost absurdly dull.
A lot of this also has to do with Mason himself, and the almost lackadaisical manner in which he’s portrayed. Ellar Coltrane was not an actor when Richard Linklater picked him to be the Boy in his Hood 14 years ago, and that is abundantly apparent as Mason ages before our eyes – particularly during the dreadful high school years the movie chronicles. I’ve seen critics gush over how fantastic Coltrane is in the film, but really, there’s no actual acting going on in his performance. While watching the movie, I kind of got the impression Coltrane was just being himself the whole time, reciting lines in the boring, humdrum way he’d say them if he was actually Mason. Yeah, I guess that’s “acting” on one level, but it’s not really “acting” on the same level as Ethan Hawke – who unquestionably delivers the best performance in the film – is acting. Coltrane portrays Mason as a fairly unexcitable downer, someone who’s kind of withdrawn and sort of a wet blanket, especially during his high school years. This isn’t necessarily a problem – it’s not like he has to be a perfect All-American high school student or anything, but it becomes troublesome when we don’t have any real reason to identify with his directionless teenage angst – he just sort of comes off as patronizing. He doesn’t have charisma, he mumbles a lot of his lines, and he seems almost uninterested in heavily emoting towards the end of the film – almost as if Coltrane lost interest in the whole project somewhere in those 12 years of production time. I just don’t see how he could be labelled as a good actor. In fact, I bet a big reason Mason never cries in the film is because Ellar Coltrane can’t make himself squeeze out the tears in real life! When you’ve got an actor in a lead role who can’t really emote or perform with real dramatic weight who’s supposed to carry your entire 3 hour running time, and kind of comes off like a moody asshole the whole time, you’ve got a real problem on your hands.
As long as we’re on the subject of performances, let me address something you won’t hear in most of the reviews you’ll find: the acting in this movie is subpar, at best. We’ve already been over Coltrane’s “stellar” performance, but seriously: Lorelei Linklater is pretty damn terrible as Mason’s older sister. I can understand Linklater’s enthusiasm for casting his daughter in this substantial role (especially after she apparently begged, pleaded & wouldn’t leave her father alone about being cast in it), but at the end of the day, Lorelei just isn’t an actress. And look, I’m really not trying to be harsh here, I don’t have anything against the kid, but her performance is one of the weakest aspects of the movie – I’m not gonna let a bad performance slide, no matter who’s delivering it. Her incessant squeals & behavior when she’s younger and eventual passiveness as a performer when she’s older are annoying, and drag the movie down as a whole. She’s a pretty major part of it for the first half, and while it establishes Mason has a boisterous & annoying older sister, her presence in the film starts to get a little grating.
And hey, here’s an interesting side note: while doing my diligent research for this analysis online I read that a few years along into the Boyhood project, Lorelei Linklater got disinterested with the film and suggested to her father that he kill off her character. Linklater balked, basically stating that it was too grim for the film he was planning and he convinced her to stay on board. Given the uneventful nature of the movie’s story, I think it actually would have been extremely daring – TRULY daring – of Linklater to kill off the sister character, because then Mason would have had some actual dramatic conflict in his life!!! It just goes to show something here…Linklater had the opportunity to make his movie a little more dramatic, yet he deliberately chose against it. Do what you will with that information, but I believe it sets a precedent for how this movie should be judged.
Anyway, Patricia Arquette fares better as the Mom character, but – despite recently winning a Golden Globe for her performance – her portrayal comes off as a little forced in many scenes. There’s a scene in the film where Mom, having recently come to her senses and left her drunken asshole boyfriend with the kids in tow, is dropping Mason & Lil’ Linklater off at a new school, and Sister Mason whines (in a very repugnant & bratty tone) that they have no friends at this school and no place to live. Mom then blows up at her, yelling about how she’s doing “the best she can” and how she “has no idea what it’s like to have a drunken asshole SLAM YOUR HEAD AGAINST A WALL” or something to that effect. It’s supposed to be a dramatic moment, Patricia Arquette’s overacted delivery of this line just takes me out of it – it’s forced, at best. This scene is the worst of it, but there are a handful of moments in the film which carry the same forced vibe. By the end of the movie, when Arquette’s character is given a farewell scene which involves an unjustly whiny, self-absorbed breakdown over her ungrateful son not taking a photo as he leaves for college, we’re not really feeling sympathy for her…it’s more like pity. And while Arquette’s performance in this scene is realistic, the narrative as a whole is casting such an unflattering light on her in her final moments onscreen that we can’t help but feel the same way she does… “it all led up to this?”
Despite my minor complaints about Patricia Arquette’s performance, Mason’s Mom and Dad are actually the most interesting characters in the whole film. More so than Mason’s character, both of the parents actually have arcs – Mom puts herself through school and kind of learns that dudes who are rich with good jobs aren’t necessarily the right picks, and Dad goes from being kind of a boyish, free-spirited slacker type of guy to a mature man with a job at an insurance company. (Hey, I didn’t say they were good arcs.) What is Mason’s arc over the course of the movie? Um…he starts out as a boy and…uh, doesn’t know what he wants to be when he grows up, so he, uh…takes up photography, and…ponders life? That’s another thing about the writing in this movie – it feels detrimentally non-directional and devoid of any deeper purpose, other than “this is what happens in real life.” “Remember that? When you couldn’t decide what college you wanted to go to? That was reeeeally tough, wasn’t it?” Anyway, I’m digressing. As I said before, Ethan Hawke gives the best performance of the film, really embodying the Dad character and giving him a boyish, carefree quality which is much needed for the role. You really get the sense that the Dad cares about his kids, and wants the best for them no matter what. Hawke takes a very naturalistic approach to the role, and doesn’t feel the need to imbue his character with any melodramatic heft or excess. His character is fair & honest with his kids, and Hawke plays the role pitch perfectly. It’s a standout performance in a sea of mediocre ones, and definitely a positive highlight of the movie as a whole.
Allow me to illustrate my points by highlighting one particular segment: There’s a scene in the film where Mason and some of his friends are hanging out with older kids. They’re talking shit, drinking beers, smoking cigarettes, throwing metal saw blades into slabs of dry wall, doing things “rebellious” young boys do. Like every other scene in the movie, it sort of just happens and doesn’t lead to anything else whatsoever. The reason I call this particular scene into question is because nearly all the performances in it are horrendous. The older kids have acting skills so shoddy that I can’t believe Linklater accepted them, and that they’re in a film being considered for the Best Picture Oscar. The writing is godawful too: the kids speak in horribly outdated slang, actually saying things like “True dat!” (In an earlier scene, when Mason is being introduced to his new class, one kid actually says to him “Welcome to the Suck”, which, I don’t know about you, is something my friends and I would ALWAYS say to each other in grade school.) In this scene we learn a new key aspect about Mason. After some hassling from the other guys about his Lady Biz Status, Mason lets it slip that he’s (apparently) hooked up with girls before. Only the thing is, we haven’t seen Mason hook up with any girls before, at least not up until this point. So either Mason is openly lying to these kids to appear cool, or we just simply haven’t seen this defining moment in a young straight man’s life – his first kiss with a girl. Or hell, doing anything romantic with a girl! Either way, we’re never told what the case is – he just says it, and I guess it’s a fact now because the movie told us so. When I saw this scene I was just like, “News To Me!” Oh, and remember that saw blade I mentioned? These kids are drinking beers, throwing sharp metal objects around, and practicing their ninja punches in close proximity to said sharp objects…suspiciously sounds like a dramatic setup, right? But, instead of one of the boys having an unfortunate accident that they’ll all have to deal with, the scene just…ends, and moves on to the next event in Mason’s life. You know, if you build up a scene, even with a hint of something dangerous going on, the audience is going to subconsciously think something is afoot…because, you know, we’ve seen movies before. However, there’s no payoff whatsoever – no payoff to the saw blade setup, no building of an emotional connection to Mason’s outlook on existence – just events, happening in sequential order like a memory reel with all the good bits chopped out.
Or how about the scenes where an older role-model type of person tries to give Mason some much-needed life advice? There are several points in the film where Mason’s dad, his photography teacher, and Drunken Stepdad #2 try to speak to him about the choices one makes in life, and how those choices shape who you are and what you’re going to be. Mason tends to listen to his father’s words with more intent, but he sort of blows off the advice of his teacher & stepdad. I can’t really say I grew to like Mason as a character more over time, because he sort of just became a closed off twerpy guy – not really the kind of person I’d want to hang out with, to be honest. For all the narrative problems Boyhood has, I will say the first half of the film is highly more engaging than the second half, where Mason becomes an angsty teenager and ponders clichéd existential questions about life. The early childhood scenes have this sense of freedom and discovery to them, while the high school scenes get bogged down with plodding, overwritten dialogue & stale performances – it really makes the 2nd half of the film feel like a chore. A good 45 minutes could have easily been cut from this film and not weighed down significantly on the movie’s overall effect.
Next let’s talk about the visual style (or lack thereof) utilized throughout the film. A notable thing about Boyhood is how plainly everything is shot. Scenes unfold in front of the camera in a very basic, conventional manner, without any attempt to make it feel “like a movie”. Now, in some ways, this makes sense, since the route Linklater is taking narratively is a very straight-up, clear-cut path through the life of this boy – no need to really embellish, right? Well…yes and no. For how plain the narrative is, we honestly could have used some embellishments in the visual style of this film, if only to keep us distracted for a few hours. But the editing & cinematography in Boyhood is so basic & by-the-book in its execution it almost feels like the first cut of an ambitious student film. What some people don’t seem to realize is that movies, being a visual medium, are capable of wooing & bedazzling us with just pure imagery alone, no need for the characters to say anything, really – the style of a film can add a special layer of richness to it, and make it more memorable in your mind-parts. I’m not asking for There Will Be Blood-caliber cinematography here, but something that’s at least visually stimulating – especially since nothing stimulating is happening in the story.
For all the talk about how personal & close to home this project was for Richard Linklater, the distant, by-the-book manner in which the story is presented to us leaves this feeling like the most impersonal personal film ever made. We never really connect with Mason as a character – he’s a bit too passive and ho-hum to be relatable on any deeply personal level. We’re never let in on what he’s thinking – and more importantly, what he’s feeling. It’s as if Linklater is simply documenting the plain, natural things that happen to a plain, natural person from an outside and omnipotent perspective, which would probably be a little more interesting if this was a documentary – but it’s not. It’s a fictional movie Linklater had complete creative control over, and for some reason, there doesn’t seem to be any creativity going on anywhere, from the choice of visual style to the way the main character is depicted. For a movie that’s supposed to be a personal, insightful look at the developing life of a single specific person, we never really get a decent grip on what it is that makes Mason Mason – and that is a huge fundamental flaw with Boyhood, in my opinion.
Do you guys remember that movie The Tree of Life, directed by God-tier director Terrence Malick and released in 2011? In that film, Malick takes us on a visual & narrative journey through the truths & mysteries of life and existence as presented through the lens of experiences from a small Texas family, specifically those of eldest son Jack. In the film he is torn between two forces: the caring love of his mother and the cold, authoritative control of his father. Because of this contradiction in his life, Jack acts out, making some questionable decisions with his actions that lead to his understanding of life as a whole. Plus, there’s dinosaurs! While Tree of Life is inarguably a more complex & ponderous movie with more on its conceptual plate than Boyhood has, there are several similarities between the two which I couldn’t help but compare & contrast.
First of all, Boyhood is also about a small Texas family, and the emotional struggles they go through as a young boy grows older. However, unlike Boyhood’s Mason, who pretty much goes with the status-quo flow his entire life, Jack in Tree of Life reaches a point where he starts acting out, vandalizing buildings and even abusing animals with his friends. He steals from his neighbor at one point, and also feels genuine complex emotional dissonance because of his parents’ different parenting styles. Tree of Life features breathtaking visual splendor on an imaginative and more down-to-earth level, and an emphatic attention to character nuance that is quite frankly missing from Boyhood’s dry, boring scenes. And while some may write off Tree of Life as pretentious and overly ambitious, it at least takes creative & narrative risks in a meaningful and interesting way, making us ask questions about our own inherent natures and choices we make in life. Boyhood just presents us the bare bones account of a life, one that doesn’t nearly approach the level of depth and complexity Malick strives to imbue his similarly-themed film with.
Now, is it fair to compare Boyhood, a small, quiet & unassuming depiction of everyday American life from the mind of a grounded, down-to-earth director like Richard Linklater, to The Tree of Life, a sprawling art-house epic directed by a certifiable madman/genius auteur which basically tries to singlehandedly answer the question of the meaning of life? Probably not, but I would argue that the ends justify the means on this one. Boyhood is being called a new American masterpiece, a heartwarming tale for young & old, and The Tree of Life, while receiving its fair share of acknowledgement & glory upon its release (including a Best Picture nomination), has sort of faded from the public eye in such short time. Why is Boyhood “bold” while Tree of Life is “polarizing”? Well, for one thing, The Tree of Life is more esoteric and thematically complex than Boyhood is – there aren’t any extended, 2001-esque cosmic flight segments where the audience soars across the universe and witnesses existence on a macrocosmic level in Boyhood. It’s a little safer, a little more cookie-cutter for modern mainstream audiences to consume & digest. It won’t offend you or your sensibilities in any way, and because of that, I feel like it’s just going to be more generally accepted than The Tree of Life will ever be.
Boyhood has received a lot of hype as being “exciting” and “daring” but, to me, it doesn’t come anywhere close to being as daring as The Tree of Life was. Tree of Life delved deeper into the underlying nature of things, and was trying to ask larger questions about consciousness & what this all really means – kind of like what Linklater did in his own film Waking Life 13 years ago. For Linklater, Boyhood isn’t any kind of narratively risky project, even if he did spend 12 years making it. It’s about a semi-privileged suburban white kid, which is something Linklater himself grew up as. If he really wanted to make Boyhood a “daring” film, he should have made it about a young black boy, growing up on the dangerous streets of an American ghetto and facing the real challenges such a life presents, not something safe and close to home. Then he could have shot THAT film over the course of 12 years. Getting out of comfort zones, much? But such a film wouldn’t sit well with the mass viewing public of the world, many of whom don’t like to have their perceptions challenged or put into question. THAT would have been a much more interesting film to me, not something which plays like an overly-sentimental Hallmark card for 3 hours straight.
Okay, now that I’ve got most of my griping out of the way and we’re nearing the end, let me just say this: if you see Boyhood, and you feel like it connects with you on an emotional & spiritual level, then by all means, enjoy your experience with this film, there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m not trying to blast Boyhood as a completely unnecessary waste of time – it is a reflection of life, and as such, contains some insightful moments on what it is to be a young person growing up in this world. It speaks a lot about how things change, while somehow seeming the same all the while – gradual change, rather than sharp and drastic. There are some genuinely touching moments in the film, particularly with Mason and his dad, which show how meaningful family relationships can be – scenes like Dad giving Mason a specially-made, self-compiled Beatles mix album complete with CD case and album art, or Mason going camping with Dad and talking about movies. Boyhood has its heart in the right place, and you can’t really knock it for that. It’s trying to be a meaningful and positive film, showing us the simplicity of existence and how our relationships interact and shape our lives. My problem is, it tends to fall flat about 98% of the time – but it does have its moments.
I know I’ve said some pretty mean things about this movie throughout this analysis, but I’m really not an old codger who just wants to shit on a harmless flick about some kid’s life – really, I just expected more out of this movie, given the wondrous and glowing reviews it has received, and was drastically let down by its execution and presentation. It’s a simple film, with not much else going on under the surface, and there’s nothing really wrong with that. The thing is, that’s all it is, and it doesn’t really stand up to these grandiose accolades it’s been receiving. In my opinion, Boyhood is an interesting experiment, a sort of “what if I did this?” scenario that a talented filmmaker dared to undertake. It didn’t quite work to the fullest extent, but hey, we got something worth seeing and talking about out of it, and that’s worth something. Because of its simplicity and unassuming charm, Boyhood has kind of developed a shield for itself from negative criticism, being hailed as beautiful by critics who don’t want to seem like a sourpuss for not liking this inoffensive film about growing up. I’m running the risk of looking like a cynical asshole film critic, but I will proudly come out and say that the inoffensive nature of Boyhood is precisely what makes it offensive to me – it doesn’t have anything deep to say other than, “this is what life is like!”
Here’s the thing about a movie like Boyhood, and I’m going to explain this as carefully as I can. When you’re watching this movie and see those “Kodak Moments” Mason has with his family, you automatically harken back your own memories with your own family and, somehow, inexplicably, those feelings become associated with the film. Then, the film is amazing by default because your own memories are amazing by default. “Look at that thing Mason got from his dad! I remember when my dad gave me a thing! This movie is SO brilliant and amazing!” You identified with your own nostalgic moment instead of the one Mason is half-heartedly experiencing onscreen. Because of this simple magic trick, Linklater is raking in millions and Boyhood is robbing more deserving films of their spotlight. If you really take a step back and watch Boyhood without the “taking a trip down memory lane” filter it becomes apparent that movie heavily relies on the audience projecting their own nostalgia into the frame. I think that’s why so many critics and so many regular people have latched on to this film so fervently like it’s some kind of wonderful new drug: it’s a nostalgia generator, but not because it actually creates its own nostalgic moments. More appropriately, it’s a nostalgia emulator – referencing those ubiquitous heartfelt moments and letting you fill in the gaps. This is what I mean when I describe Boyhood as a manipulative film.
Which I guess is as good a spot as any to address the music in this film. Linklater made a very true-to-life move and decided not to incorporate a traditional musical score for the film, most likely because real life doesn’t have its own film score. I’ll actually give Linklater some credit here – while a film score might have been effective in its own right, it definitely wouldn’t have aligned with the “true to life” vibe he was shooting for. Having no orchestrated score made the movie feel at least a little more real, even if the convenient and simplistic writing detracted from that. The score of our modern lives is, of course, popular music, which is utilized to full effect throughout the movie. The very first thing our senses are treated to in Boyhood is the sound of Coldplay’s “Yellow” introducing Mason to us in the properly sappy tone only a song like “Yellow” could achieve. The movie’s got a wide range of musical selections – from Blink-182 to Sheryl Crow to The Flaming Lips to Soulja Boy to Gnarls Barkley to Lady Gaga to Paul McCartney to Arcade Fire. There’s a lot of tunes of varying degrees of quality throughout the film, and it at least serves to switch up the humdrum goings-on of what’s actually happening onscreen. In fact, I could probably say that Boyhood’s soundtrack is probably the most eclectic aspect of the film. That being said, it’s only with a few exceptions that the songs are used as anything more than background music – not really having anything to do with the scenes at hand, but placed there to remind us roughly what era it is, and also to wring all that precious nostalgia-juice out of our exhausted nostalgia glands. At least Linklater did us the favor of saving the movie’s “theme song” – that godawful song “Hero” by Family of the Year (how appropriate) till the end, where we don’t have to put up with it for very long! Words cannot describe how much I hate that song…it’s bland, corny and sickeningly oversentimental, much like the movie it will forever be associated with.
Overall, I would say that Boyhood is an ineffective film, one which whole-heartedly tries but ultimately fails to achieve the deeper implications of what its intriguing premise promises. There’s too much hokey dialogue, bland cinematography, subpar-to-weak acting, and manipulative/faux-sentimental hoo-hah going on in the movie for me to consider it as one of the “greatest films of the decade.” There’s not enough energy in the movie, nothing exciting or interesting to really keep us ingrained in the film’s world throughout its butt-numbing three hour running time. And what’s worse, we’re never made to feel close or united with Mason and his “problems”, which is problematic for a movie which is solely concentrated on that one character. We never make a true connection with Mason, and that is why Boyhood is flawed. The sad thing is, critics and (some) audiences all over the country seem to be blind to this inherent flaw because they’re going absolutely gaga over it and nominating it for all sorts of awards – and what’s worse, giving it those awards! This is a slightly fancier Hallmark Channel TV movie, at best. It’s certainly no Birdman, which in MY humble opinion is THE BEST movie of 2014, if not the DECADE.
Ah, Birdman. Birdman is so great. Birdman is 20 times more creative, risky & daring than Boyhood could ever HOPE to be, and it’s not getting the glorious recognition it deserves because this flop film has come out in the same year and is pulling a lampshade over everyone’s heads. Birdman has compelling characters, GREAT performances, stunning cinematography and music, and best of all, it’s DIFFERENT. It’s INTERESTING. It has soul, wit and heart that I frankly haven’t seen in a film in quite some time. And before I turn this into a full-blown Birdman review (that’s coming later), I just want to say that I brought up Birdman because that film embodies everything that makes a great film great – the human elements, an elegant & thought-provoking story, the deeper thematic underpinnings within that story, the memorable characters, the colossal drama & tension…those things make a Great Film fun to watch, not… “Where am I gonna go to college?” “Aw man, this girl broke up with me, that wasn’t fun. I’m gonna mope about it for 2 ½ hours of running time.” “Ohh, I don’t know what to do with my life…isn’t that, leik, so dramaaaatic??”
Yes, Linklater’s Boyhood, a film being praised as a masterpiece and a profound appraisal on the human condition, is ironically one of the most lifeless films about real life ever made. It’s boring, plain & simple, and almost shockingly trite in how phony & unconvincing its portrayal of youth is. Mason is just a dude floating through life, free from any eye-opening choices, safe from any life-changing circumstances. It’s kind of insulting that this faux-sentimental tripe is being pushed upon us like the second coming of Movie Christ, actually. That’s why I have chosen it as the Most Overrated Film of the Decade, even though we’re just halfway through it. The sickening amount of critical praise this film has received is literally baffling to me, and I sort of wrote this analysis as a way of venting & figuring out just what it is that’s making everyone go gaga. It’s sappy, nostalgic, & directed by man whom film critics have come to respect over the years – it’s for these reason that I believe Boyhood has become so absurdly overhyped. And don’t forget – it took 12 years to make!!!
In closing, here is a little something I’d like to share with you which sums up my feelings about Boyhood. There’s a scene early on in the film when Mason is out bowling with his annoying sister and absentee father, and Ethan Hawke’s character gives him these immortal words of profound fatherly advice: “You don’t need the bumpers. Life doesn’t give you bumpers.” Unfortunately, with his technically interesting but overly dull & ham-fisted film Boyhood, director Linklater has given Mason bumpers – the bumpers to coast throughout life with ease, bouncing off one setback to the next without ever once winding up in the gutter. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t sound very “great” to me.