I wanted to love Boyhood. I was a boy. I’m the father of a boy. I like the premise. I like writer/director Richard Linklater. I like the fact that a film released six months before awards season has a shot at taking Best Picture at the Oscars. (It won a Golden Globe last night.) I was rooting for Boyhood.
I finally saw Boyhood this weekend (it was released Jan. 6 on DVD, BluRay and digital). And it’s—adequate.
Boyhood is a concept film: as you likely know by now, once a year for 12 years, Linklater filmed a vignette about the life of a young boy, Mason, played by Ellar Coltrane. We watch Coltrane age along with the actors playing his family: Rosanna Arquette, Ethan Hawke, and Linklater’s daughter, Lorelai. And … that’s it. It’s like watching a highlight reel of 12 seasons of a TV drama, leaving the audience grasping for context, feeling like we’re missing something—maybe a lot, despite the almost three-hour running time.
Boyhood has many charms. The concept is, of course, interesting. It’s beautifully shot. Arquette is great. Hawke is very good as the manchild who doesn’t know how to be anything more than the good-time, dorky and awkward dad while joking with the kids about what a pain in the ass mom—a.k.a. the parent doing the actual heavy lifting—can be. The soundtrack is as carefully curated as the period-specific art direction. (Yes, the dad-rock scene where Hawke geeks out about Wilco hits a little too close to home.) The way the script portrays divorce and the ripples it sends through all lives involved is devastating and true.
The parents have drama in their lives—Arquette’s character much more than she would like—but the son doesn’t, really. He’s a brooder, a watcher—and, once he hits high school and college, a photographer. We can see he’s as upset as the rest of his family when his mom marries a man who turns into an abusive drunk; we see him shrug off a verbal confrontation with a later stepdad. But, like so many silent or mumbling boys, he’s all like, “whatever.” We don’t actually know anything about how he feels about anything until the last 20 minutes of the movie, when he’s 17 years old and waxing philosophical in the presence of a girlfriend.
Boyhood doesn’t have a plot—that’s fine. Neither did Slacker nor Dazed and Confused nor Waking Life, three of Linklater’s earlier films, during which I was happy to just surrender to the stream of consciousness and strange characters. (Disclosure: I’ve never seen his Before Sunrise trilogy.) In many respects, Boyhood is the same. Yet because of the conceit and the running length of the film, I was hoping to at least be more invested in these people. Mason, the boy, doesn’t seem to exist: he’s a cipher, a largely silent, inanimate subject, something to which the other characters—his mother, his father, his sister, his stepdads—can only react. Boyhood isn’t actually about boyhood at all; Linklater seems to have made Mason the centre of the script only so he can touch in on the lives of the parents.
Maybe Boyhood is revolutionary in American film (the Brits have Michael Apted’s Seven Up) for its realism, depicting life’s accumulation of heartbreak and disappointment without resolution or necessarily any kind of progress at all. The film’s one truly memorable exchange, between a 17-year-old Mason and his dad, addresses this explicitly. Maybe Mason is supposed to be us: detached, taking in the strange details around him, wondering what will happen when this ends. Mason’s life is just beginning. Ours hasn’t changed at all.
Or maybe Boyhood, like life itself, could never—by its very nature—live up to any hype.