Boyhood (2014)

Boyhood posterI have been waiting months to finally see Richard Linklater’s Boyhood; this is the only film I anticipated this year (last year, I was similarly excited about Linklater’s Before Midnight; wonderful.) Boyhood has been reviewed mostly rapturously (David Edelstein, listing it as the year’s best film: “I know movies can do something that just last week I didn’t. They can make time visible.”) It was the concept that attracted me – one of our most naturalistic contemporary writer/directors working with a cast over a 12-year period. My reaction is mixed. While I was mostly engrossed during the film’s almost-three-hour running time, and I’d rather watch it again over the latest X-Men film, I’m not sure it rises to greatness. If Boyhood is great, it’s because the movie subverts our expectations about what filmed entertainment should provide. To be sure, it’s naturalistic to a fault.

The movie’s title and the reviews would have us believe the film is about Ellar Coltrane’s Mason; although he’s the center of most scenes, the movie is concerned with the overall family unit, including Patricia Arquette’s Mom, Ethan Hawke’s Dad, and Lorelei Linklater’s Samantha (she steals most scenes early on, and might have dominated the film even more if the actress hadn’t lost interest and requested less screen time. In any case, she is an exception to the rule that directors should never cast their offspring.) I might have been more impressed if Linklater had told the entire story from Mason’s point of view, reflecting his growing maturity and understanding – this is something that literary fiction does well and hasn’t often been represented on film. What better opportunity?

As told, Boyhood might as well be called “Motherhood,” because men are invariably depicted as unreliable/unstable, sometimes dangerously so. In Linklater’s movie, mothers are the ones who do the right thing and hold families together; we have no reason to believe the eponymous Mason will turn out differently (his touchstones of alcohol, drugs, and slacker rebellion link him to Hawke’s ne’er-do-well Dad.) And maybe “Motherhood” might have been apt, because Arquette is marvelous. For all the hype about watching Ellar Coltrane grow up during the movie, I was most captivated by Arquette’s more subtle transformation. To say she is vanity-free is beside the point. In a Hollywood where actresses struggle to maintain a youthful illusion, Arquette devoted 12 years to the life of her character – plus she gets the best lines, near the end, when Linklater is trying to underline his thesis.

That isn’t to say Coltrane isn’t great. In fact, he gets better and better; one gets the sense that he grew into Linklater’s doppelgänger over the years, which is perhaps how the movie’s title was determined. By the final scenes, I felt I might be watching a prequel to the “Before…” trilogy, especially because Ethan Hawke plays Dad here. Coltrane has several movie credits, but we really watch him develop over the 12-year shoot of Boyhood. As Edelstein writes, “…when he’s a senior in high school, he meets a girl and begins — of course! — to find his tongue.” We never get the sense of an actor “acting,” which is the main appeal for most reviews I’ve read. But if Coltrane is able to maintain his naturalism in future work, I will be surprised; Linklater was lucky to find him, skilled in directing him, but it feels like a stunt compared to Arquette’s work.

The Granada Television “Up” documentary series began in 1964, with the film “Seven Up!” It follows 14 British youths, beginning at age seven, and revisits them every seven years. The series currently has eight installments, all but the first directed by Michael Apted. Linklater’s Boyhood has a similar feel, but it is far less compelling for some reason. Both feel like life, except we know Linklater’s is made-up. That makes a big difference in terms of drama – although there is some pleasure to be had from not knowing where Linklater’s story is going, the audience expects certain touchstones of fiction (overarching theme, foreshadowing, etc.) The pleasures of documentary surprises seem like warmed-over potluck when they happen in a fictional work (and ultimately, Boyhood contains few surprises.)

I am damning this movie with faint praise. It’s all I can offer. Based on my expectations, I am disappointed; Boyhood is not transcendent. With that said, it is more interesting by far than anything else I’ve seen this year.