Boyhood – film review – C

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I don’t write many film reviews anymore because of my increasing work in fiction.  However, I make it a point to watch as many films as possible when I think they are going to be talked about come Oscar time.  According to many film critics, this is one of them.

In Boyhood, the camera follows Mason (no last name listed on IMDB) from age 5 to 18.  What’s different about this film when compared to most others that follow one character over the span of many years is that the same actor, Ellar Coltrane, portrays Mason from start to finish.  As a film, Boyhood is significant because most people, including actors, change greatly from ages 5 to 18, so it is rather unique to have one actor play that one character while shooting over a period of about 12 years.  However, as a story, Boyhood is not significant because nothing of much interest happens.

Mason lives with sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) and Mom (Patricia Arquette), who is doing her best to pay the bills, keep food on the table, and raise kids who might have a future ahead of them.  She’s not the world’s greatest mother, but she is doing more than most single parents in her position.

1404935134_boyhood-movie-ethan-zoomAt the start, Mom is arguing with a guy who wants her to spend more time with him, less time with the kids.  He’s an idiot, and Mom cries, and Mason witnesses but doesn’t react at all.  Dad (Ethan Hawke) has not seen the kids for about 18 months but suddenly comes back into their lives after taking off to Alaska in order to “find himself.”  So far, there’s nothing we haven’t seen before either on film or any nearby street.  Keep in mind that in addition to Coltrane as Mason, all of the other principal actors also play themselves.

Mom moves the kids to Houston to be closer to their grandmother and allow more time for Mom to pursue higher education.  At the end of a psychology class, one of her professor’s spouts a half-decent hit and convinces her to join him on a date.  Not long after, they’re returning from a honeymoon in France.  He seems educated and dedicated enough, but it doesn’t take long for us to realize he’s got an alcohol problem.  Why he needs to stay toasted and throw bottles, glasses, and plates at the kids or around the dining room isn’t clearly understood, but I suppose that’s okay.  At 2 hours 45 minutes, there just wasn’t enough time to explain everything.  To go 2 hours 46 minutes would have been, well, too long.  I guess.

Thought Dad gets the idea that Mom has no interest in trying again, he doesn’t use that as an excuse to retreat again.  He regularly spends weekends with them, asks poignant questions without settling for less than poignant answers, and continues to have both a real job while pursuing his love of music and songwriting.  He’s the easy-going dad who takes the boy camping and talks to the girl about birth control.  Mom is a little more stringent but not at all over bearing or mean.  Yawn.

Mom, still trying her best, enters into two other relationships that have their highs and lows.  Dad goes through his own growing pains and wavers to what seem like political extremes.  It could be that Dad is growing up after having spent years trying to find himself.  Or, maybe Dad is thinking less about what’s important to him and more about what his kids need that he can’t provide.  Either is valid.  Meanwhile, Mason and Samantha plod along with the expected dalliances involving alcohol, drugs, dating, sex, peer pressure, rumors and gay bashing, high school crap, and college aspirations.  Mason is into the arts, specifically photography.  Samantha is largely ignored, but the film is called Boyhood, not Girlhood.  If my enthusiasm is on the soft side, it’s for a reason.  Yawn.

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I’m confused by the hype that refers to this as some kind of “masterpiece” or “one of the greatest achievements ever put on film.”  I get the idea that the same actors played the same characters for about a dozen years.  And?  What about a story?  What about people who aren’t cookie-cutter stereotypes we’ve seen since whenever?  What happens is – nice.  But it’s nothing outstanding.  Though we follow Mason from both his nicer and rougher friends, his nicer and rougher girlfriends, there is never anything that deserves to be called “outstanding” when it comes to storytelling.  Please remember, this is not a documentary.

If you want to see a film achievement that spans time, do yourself a favor and watch The Up Up Series, available on Netflix.  It started with a TV movie called Seven Up, which examined the lives of seven children at the age of 7.  Then the same kids were revisited at 14, and then 21, 28, 35, 49, and 56.  That is inarguably a film achievement because it doesn’t follow seven actors.  It follows seven real people during a span of 56 years.  I’m not trying to downgrade writer-director Richard Linklater.  He’s made some good films, especially the under-appreciated Bernie with Jack Black.  He has also experimented with long-form takes in films including Before Sunset and its sequels while allowing his actors to improvise.  Those were good but not great films.

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As stated, nothing much really happens.  There are no life-threatening events.  There are no moments of gasping or cheering.  There’s just stuff that seems like the same stuff you’ll hear if you spend twenty minutes at a PTA meeting or airport lounge where people are waiting for a flight.  It’s just regular, average, real-life situations without any great conflict or instigation.

Perhaps had something on that level been introduced it would have seemed forced.  I can agree with that completely, which makes the film even less interesting and makes something like The Up Series even more outstanding.  So to take what seems like a yawn moment of everyday life and stretch it to nearly three hours makes it seem even less significant and more “blah” than I already thought.

Most of the acting, including Arquette and Hawke, seems stale and rehearsed.  I imagine that when Linklater was shooting scenes in which Mason was 12, he was greatly restricted by what had already been shot in all the years prior.  That means there was only so much they could do while trying to appear “natural.”  Or, it means that something had been scripted over a dozen years before it had actually happened, resulting in a stale story.  To watch Samantha sing and dance to a Britney Spears song that had been released in 2000 is if it had just been released seems like a “huh?” moment.  It might have been better for Linklater to create his own teen singer and song.  Then again, it might have been better for Linklater to realize that Boyhood is one of those quirky ideas that seemed cool at the time but didn’t work out well once he actually tried to put it all together.

I suppose I could knock on the door of a random family and ask if they have video showing what their kids have been doing for 12 years.  Maybe it would seem kind of creepy to peek into the lives of real people, but isn’t that what we’re supposed to pretend we’re doing every time we watch a film?  Yeah, it is.  Just pick a better one than Boyhood.  

Disagree?  Ask yourself this – would you have enjoyed the movie as much if different actors had played Mason?  Think about that.

Teacher gives it a C.

4 thoughts on “Boyhood – film review – C

  1. Awesome review! I’ve been curious about this flick for a while. Still looking forward to checking it out. I just haven’t had the opportunity to do so yet. I enjoyed your take.

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