Directed by: Richard Linklater || Produced by: Richard Linklater, Cathleen Sutherland, Jonathan Sehring, John Sloss
Screenplay by: Richard Linklater || Starring: Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Lorelei Linklater, Ethan Hawke, Libby Villari, Marco Perella, Brad Hawkins, Jenni Tooley, Zoe Graham, Zoe Graham
Cinematography: Lee Daniel, Shane Kelly || Edited by: Sandra Adair || Country: United States || Language: English
Running Time: 165 minutes
According to Rottentomatoes, Richard Linklater’s (Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight trilogy [1995, 2004, 2013], School of Rock ) latest film, Boyhood, has achieved a 99% Fresh Rating with 205 positive reviews out of 207, and is described as, “Epic in technical scale but breathlessly intimate in narrative scope, Boyhood is a sprawling investigation of the human condition.” The darling creative project of American indie film-favorite Linklater has swept up hype and praise from nearly every corner of the critical sphere, and won fans from countless film festival audiences, with many reviewers describing it as “the coming-of-age film to end all coming-of-age films.”
Shot in segments over a twelve (12!)-year period with the same cast, Boyhood follows the life of one Mason Evans, Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) as he relives large portions of writer-director Linklater’s Texas childhood. The film makes little effort to creatively analyze or dissect the modern day “average American” childhood (or should I say, boyhood), instead choosing to merely put the record of its character’s 12-year growth on display, and have the viewers draw their own conclusions. This is a large part of the film’s charm; by deciding not to embellish the story with flashy cinematographic flavor, by not engrossing us in the personal details of Mason’s psyche, Boyhood allows itself to be more accessible to the general viewer by allowing them to project themselves onto Mason’s character, and thus grow alongside him as we, in our own way, relive our own childhood through him.
What’s impressive about Boyhood is how relatable it feels on so many levels. Regardless of whether you’re male, female, gay, straight, or described yourself as a hipster, jock, nerd, or none-of-the-above as a kid growing up, the universality of childhood experience pierces through the story’s tiresome indie-cliches to feel open to just about everybody. This film is about an American boy growing up, specifically a recreation of Linklater growing up (however much he may deny it), but that’s OK given how Linklater’s personal experiences and the openness of the screenplay meld well to find a relatable, open-ended middle-ground.
Where Boyhood becomes tiresome and where much of the universal praise for the film falls flat is how it never strives beyond this. Boyhood, for all its admirable honesty, innocence, and relatable charm, never reaches beyond its modest goals of presenting yet another rendition of a boy becoming a man. It is a long-winded coming-of-age tale shot in a relatively novel production schedule (with regards to feature-filmmaking, not filmmaking in general). That is all.
While the idea of filming a movie with the same cast and crew for 12 years sounds neat, the end result of the decade-plus filmmaking effort doesn’t wow beyond the visual authenticity of how the characters age. This is where I, as well as a few others, were able to recognize where much of the gargantuan hype for this film has come from — its technical premise and production history. Watching Coltrane and his co-stars age from one year to the next looks cool… until he hits puberty around age 13 (about 2/3 through the movie), and then metamorphoses into a scraggly, homely teenager who barely resembles the appearance or personality of Mason ages 6-12.
Given how most of the film’s critical acclaim stems from its premise and not the movie’s actual content, how does the rest of the film fare from a more objective standpoint? As I said, the film’s relatability and universal story are its greatest strengths, but again, the film never stretches past its bloated retelling of childhood maturation. I can’t fault the film for not being anything other than what it’s supposed to be, but at the same time, its lack of ambition and any sort of cinematographic style becomes grating after 165 minutes. Boyhood has no flavor to it all, no resonant emotional overtones or narrative spice, no outstanding scene that showcases excitement or wonder. I’m not recommending Linklater shove millions of explosions and CGI-bullshit into his film to make it stand out, but like most non-major studio American dramas, Boyhood just goes too far in the other direction.
Boyhood has far more in common with the rest of its arthouse crowd beyond its overblown critical hype and lack of excitement, though. At close to three hours, the film is overindulgent and poorly paced, with much of its adolescent dialogue feeling clunky and awkward, as if it were written by a forty-five year-old man trying to remember how teenagers talked back in the day. Coltrane’s character grows irritating by the time he hits puberty, as his adorable younger innocence gives way to scene after scene of him rolling his eyes and spouting cliched dialogue about how the world is so unfair. This aspect of the teenage dialogue is accurate compared to the cringe-worthy “whatEVER’s” and “welcome to the suck!” and “true dat, bro!”-lines uttered by various other child-actors and hamfisted social commentary from Patricia Arquette’s pretentious group of friends. I can relate to much, if not all of of Mason’s teenage angst in the last hour of the film, but the poor execution of these sections (from both the standpoint of the writing and Coltrane’s performance) leave much to be desired.
The final acts of Boyhood primarily consist of this: A boring, unlikable teenager whining about his problems ad nauseum. When teenage angst is an inseparable part of a cinematic story, it must have substance to it besides its face-value of realism. In other words, a character’s teenage whining needs to have a broader thematic point to it to justify its endless repetition. Mason needs more spark or personality for his emotional venting to come through. This is where that lack of uniqueness, that purposeful “blank-slate” feeling of the story, the cinematography, and many of the characters falls through and works against the film rather than for it.
Some notable positives that buoy the film despite its numerous flaws are its great adult performances. Ethan Hawke gives one of the best acting turns of his career, and his character as Mason’s father is easily the funniest and most likable of the bunch. Arquette also does a great job playing Mason’s mother, who somehow portrays the simultaneous triumph and failure of the working-class single mother who pulls herself up by her bootstraps despite endless layers of glass ceilings. The other minor adult roles fill out accordingly, the pattern being that the more consistent adult actors continually pick up the slack of their younger counterparts as the latter struggle with Linklater’s awkward, pseudo-juvenile dialogue.
If you’re in the mood for quaint, tame, but mildly endearing coming-of-age drama, Boyhood will suffice just fine, but I think it’s fair we acknowledge that plenty of other, better indie (and mainstream) alternatives do exist. This story has been done to death and Linklater offers little innovation on the subject that we can see, appreciate, and digest on screen. The production history of Boyhood is interesting, and the team behind the film should be proud for trying something different, but at the end of the day, there’s not much actual cinematic innovation I can see in the finished product.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: The archetypal narrative uses its universality of the charm and confusion of childhood to speak to the nostalgia of our own boyhoods (or girlhoods). Boyhood’s great adult cast is lead by a witty, confident pair in Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, who often feel more interesting than their characters’ children. The story sidesteps a few key Hollywood cliches with its plain, indie attitude regarding sex, virginity, and a few other predictable adolescent milestones.
— However… Boyhood replaces that mainstream cheese with loads of cliches you’ve never even heard of, namely tiresome dysfunctional family drama, pretentious, awkward child-actors, and tedious political commentary. The movie goes on for far too long for no reason at all. Coltrane’s character loses all likability and charm once his balls drop.
—> ON THE FENCE
? These moments are not good moments on which to end your nearly three-hour movie.