Boyhood is very quickly evolving into one of those films that it is borderline sacrilege as a film fan to say anything negative about. After all, how can a movie created over the course of twelve years by indie darling Richard Linklater that chronicles a young man’s rise to adulthood be anything but a masterpiece? Do not fear my friends, I am not about to dump on a film that has touched so many people, in fact, I rather liked it, but there are most certainly a few glaring flaws that practically nobody seems to be addressing at the moment as they bask in the glow of that 99% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Boyhood, quite simply, is the ultimate coming of age story. We start off in 2002 with a six year old boy named Mason (Ellar Coltrane) living with his single mother (Patricia Arquette) and older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater). They’re not particularly well off, but they’re making it work as they embark of the first of many moves to a new Texas town. Meanwhile, their father (Ethan Hawke) is trying his best to maintain a heathy relationship with his kids, while also maintaining his fairly low-responsibility life style. As we pan over the course of the twelve years, people come and out of this family’s lives, bodies change, and Mason finds an interest in photography, ultimately becoming a man through his experiences.
The structure of Boyhood is both it’s greatest virtue and most pressing weakness. On the positive end, it is absolutely amazing to experience the maturation of these people right before our very eyes. The film, even with it’s grandiose length, perfectly captures the feeling of being that parent who is constantly proclaiming that their kids are growing up way too fast. This doesn’t just go for the kids either. Hawke and Arquette are put through the paces of life every bit as much, and although one of them certainly ends up far better off than the other, we get to see them develop their world views through their experiences with their children. The film also serves as a fantastic time capsule for the last decade. So many silly little pop culture fads and sensations are touched upon here (my favorite being a reference to the Will Farrell viral video, The Landlord) that it really feels like these characters have lived in the same world we have.
The performances are mostly rock solid. Coltrane isn’t exactly oscar material, but he’s certainly a great deal more understated than many young and teenage actors. While I definitely have a couple issues with Mason as a character, Coltrane works through them to give us a young man with constantly shifting and changing points of view. Arquette is wonderfully emotive and down to earth as a mother who just can’t seem to make a good decision no matter how hard she tries, and Hawke is as charismatic and inviting as ever. The only person who really doesn’t shine here is Lorelei Linklater. Shrill and annoying in her younger years, and stiff and callused in her older ones, her character is utterly one note, and seems to remain mentally six years old throughout the entire film.
Where Boyhood starts to struggle is in it’s actual mechanics as a story. No matter how determined it seems to be the most authentic coming of age story of all time, it still falls into quite a few very cliched traps. While the main cast are fairly three dimensional, the supporting characters could not be more broadly drawn. Nowhere is this more clear then in one of Mason’s stepfathers, Bill (Marco Perella). An arrogant, unfunny, sleazy professor at the outset, and a boozing, verbally and physically abusive coward later on, this guy never gets to show even the slightest hint as to why Arquette’s character even marries him in the first place. I mean, he conveniently has kids that are the same age and gender as hers, but is that really grounds to marry such a jackass?
Although watching Mason develop as a person is very cool as a sensory experience, the movie has an odd habit of skipping over some of his most defining moments, seeming more concerned about how he reacts to them. This is especially apparent in the later half of the film. I don’t want to give anything away, but entire relationships change over the course of a cut to a new segment, making the narrative feel very disjointed at times. In fact, quite a few times, it doesn’t feel so much like a movie as a series of scenes that are just sort of cobbled together.
The writing can feel very cumbersome at times. Linklater’s dialogue has a very intellectual, play-like sensibility with people having constant discussions about philosophy, and the human condition. This works great in something like the ‘Before Trilogy’ where the movie is just about two very smart, cultured people talking to each other, but in something like this that is trying to be naturalistic, it comes off as very forced. This is not a pervasive problem throughout the film, in fact, any scene where Hawke and Coltrane share the screen is pure gold, but there are quite a few moments of Mason speechifying with no real purpose that just don’t sound like a normal teenage boy, they sound like a screenwriter thinking way too hard. There’s also a slightly annoying political left lean throughout much of the film that never feels organic, practically none of the characters who seem as though they would be republicans are portrayed in a positive light at all.
Boyhood is a film that works much better as an experience than as a well constructed story As I was watching it, I enjoyed it, but as I type this review, and think about it more and more, the clearer it becomes that this film has some very fundamental issues that bar it from being this masterpiece that everyone says it is. Is it ambitious, respectable, and worth a watch? Absolutely, but lower your expectations just a touch. It’s more akin to the broadly drawn, sort of collared in picture of a young child than the seasoned, thought out artistry of a seasoned adult.