Being a dissenter is never easy. One always runs the risk of being labelled a contrarian. And I certainly am not trying to outright refute the praises sung by so many of this film. But I am not going to add to them, at least not unreservedly. Boyhood is a good film. It’s a great experiment, and in the watching it moves quickly (at least until the last 15 minutes or so), it engages for the most part, and it has moments that, in me at least, induce prickles of nostalgia, or strike a chord in the part of me that is my parents’ son.
But as wide as it casts its net (12 years in the making!) it’s ultimately lacking in real insight or psychological depth, so while I enjoyed my time with these people, I can’t say I really understood them any better at the end of 164 minutes.
Beginning in 2002, we follow the coming of age of Mason Evans Jr. (Ellar Coltrane), and to a lesser degree, his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater). They live in Dallas with their single mother, Olivia (Patricia Arquette), but then move to Houston so she can return to college and earn her teaching degree. She marries Bill (Marco Perella), one of her psychology professors, but the marriage deteriorates as his alcoholism worsens and his demanding nature turns to abuse. She leaves him, and having earned her degree, she and her children move to San Marcos, were she ends up marrying one of her students (Brad Hawkins).
During this time, Mason and Samantha have intermittent visits with their father, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke), who at first is somewhat immature and aimless, having spent a couple of years working in Alaska on a fishing boat; he returns to Texas and, while he plays in a band, he earns an actuarial license, remarries (and has another child), and seemingly becomes settled for the first time in his life.
Mason, meanwhile, passes through a generally ordinary adolescence, becoming interested in girls, partying, and photography (which becomes his driving passion). He enters into a relationship with Sheena (Zoe Graham), which lasts for some time. He butts heads with his second stepfather, who has become an alcoholic corrections officer, and his mother’s second marriage ends. Samantha goes to UT-Austin, Mason and Sheena visit her there, but after their break-up, he ends up going to another college, and the film ends with him taking a hike into the desert with his roommate and a pair of girls, one of whom says: “They always talk about seizing the moment. But sometimes it feels like the moment seizes us.”
How you react to that final line may say a lot about how you react to Boyhood as a whole. Is it profound? Is it a deliberate parody of adolescent attempts at profundity? Is it drug-induced rambling? Personally, I want to say it’s a parody, since I shudder to think Linklater meant for us to take such a phrase seriously (the reversal of an adage seems to me one of the cheaper varieties of proverb.
But throughout, the film has other nuggets of (faux)-profundity like this. When young Mason goes bowling and, having thrown a pair of gutters, asks to use the bumpers, his father replies “You don’t want bumpers. Life doesn’t give you bumpers.” Or take the adolescent Mason’s conspiracy-theory musings on the state of the modern world, where he suggests that modern technology has rendered us something less than human. Sheena deflates these sentiments, but when she breaks up with him (and is implied to be shallow and “square”, as Mason Sr. puts it), is the film implicity suggesting she was wrong and Mason really does have a point? (One of my friends will gladly point out that Linklater is friends with conspiracy-theorist extraordinaire Alex Jones.)
But I digress. Boyhood has met with immense praise (99% on Rotten Tomatoes!), and it’s being mooted as an Oscar contender; it is, to coin a phrase, the Greatest Film Ever Made of the Year–like Gravity, The Social Network, and other instantly-acclaimed films before it. Yet, like Gravity, I think it’s an impressive accomplishment on the surface, but one that lacks real substance–and like Gravity, I’m baffled by the near-total lack of real critical dissent to the tide of fawning praise. Both films are good, but I’m truly shocked more critics aren’t calling out their shortcomings. Because, as far as I’m concerned, they are too fundamental too ignore. (Indiewire features an article which makes a good case against the uniformity of the praise.)
That’s not to say I’m reviewing Boyhood simply in terms of the contrast between the general critical reception and my own thoughts about it. That’s just not good criticism. But I had to mention it. It would have loomed over everything else otherwise.
Like I said back at the beginning, a lot of my frustration with the film comes from what I consider its lack of depth. The film presents the 12 years in a strictly linear fashion, and we see, for the most part, a few days or weeks out of each year, and what happens in the interim is often only alluded to in passing. Some segments of the story are treated relatively in depth–Bill’s descent into alcoholic rage for example–while others (the end of Olivia’s second marriage) are glossed over. There are numerous gaps, some more frustrating than others, but the cumulative effect of these is it we can never fully chart Mason’s growth (or lack of growth), since so many of his formative experiences are simply not shown.
And even when we are shown, we are only shown the surface. I’ve never cared for the question “What makes you/him/her/them tick?”, but in Mason’s case, I’m compelled to ask. Mason is, frankly, often somewhat frustrating–it’s almost a running gag how he has not yet finished his homework, his photography projects, or his chores (and if this was intended as a metaphor for the fact that we are never truly complete as people or some such, I’m going to vomit), and nearly everyone at some point or another tries to light a fire under his ass–and personally, I tended to agree with them. I empathize with a tendency towards procrastination, but why Mason is so noncommital is never explored.
When Mason’s photography teacher chides him for not showing adequate discipline (and assigns him to shoot a football game which Mason spends much of shooting sideline action from “arty” angles), when his manager at the restaurant where he works gets annoyed at his pausing to chat with a co-worker while tables go uncleared, when his second stepfather calls him out for being late (and not giving word of his whereabouts) and for his overall lack of accountability–what are we meant to take away from moments like these? That the teacher is a smug hardass, the manager is priggish and petty, or the stepfather is a drunken jerk? Or that Mason, really, does kind of need to shape up?
Perhaps I’m speaking from the privilege of having passed those years of my life (I’m 24). Perhaps I’m comparing my own actions as a youth to Mason’s, or how I would’ve handled the same situations, or how I would’ve reacted to him had I known him. But I’ve made allowances for characters whose behavior has frustrated me many a time–and there have been characters who’ve frustrated me more than Mason. But I feel like I understood them more than Mason.
Which brings us back to the idea of Boyhood as an experiment. Was one of the goals of the experiment to see if, by showing these scenes from Mason’s life, and connect 12 years’ worth of these scenes together, we the audience could connect the dots and, by the end, we would have some understanding? Because that goal was not met. If the goal was to find “truth through banality”, the film does not find truth, and manages to skirt real banality–most of what we see ends up being relevant to the film’s themes.
One major exception is the sequence where Mason and Samantha visit the parents of Mason Sr.’s second wife, who give Mason a rifle and a Bible (a red-letter edition, no less), for his birthday. They also go to church, have an impromptu shooting lesson (Samantha proves a dead shot with a pistol), and perform a song Mason Sr. has written for the amusement of the parents. It’s one of the film’s most unaffected sequences (it doesn’t make fun of the parents’ religious values, but finds humor in the contrast of them with Mason’s lack of fervor), and in many ways, one of the best.
Elsewhere, we find little moments that do pack a punch–late in the film, as Mason prepares to leave for college, he notices his mother has slipped an old photo–the first he ever took himself–into his effects, and when casually says “All the more reason to leave it behind”, there’s a moment of silence, before Olivia breaks down weeping. That moment, that feeling of hurting one’s mother through a thoughtless (if non-malicious) act, is powerfully evoked. Then she proceeds to bemoan the fact that all her major life milestones are past, and all she has to look forward to is her funeral. We never see Mason apologize or console her; I don’t know if this was a deliberate omission, but it did not improve my opinion of him.
And the depiction of Bill’s descent is quite harrowing, thanks to Perella’s unflinching portrayal. At first we see him as a genial, slightly nerdy, stolid fellow, but as his disciplinarian attitude grows more pronounced and his drinking increases, the facade crumbles. Has he lost his job? Does he just fall to pieces in the summer, with no class to teach? Who knows. But the scenes where he terrorizes the family at dinner (at one point even saying “I don’t like me either”), or looks at the kids’ cell phones to see if any of them have contacted Olivia, or has Mason and his own son give an incoherently scrawled check to a liquor store clerk to cash (Olivia having taken all of his money)…these pack a real, frightening punch.
But, indicative of one of the film’s primary shortcomings, after Olivia, Mason, and Samantha have left Bill, and after a line where she says she called Bill’s children’s mother, along with CPS, we never hear from or see Bill or his children again. The film–and the characters–seem to forget about them. But throughout Mason makes and leaves behind friends, many of whom are scarcely identified, let alone remembered. If this was a developed theme of the film–that Mason is sort of wandering detachedly through his own life–I could understand it. But here it just feels like carelessness on Linklater’s part.
It also adds to the fact that many of the film’s most effective sequences are the ones where the adults take center stage. Now, the first hour or so–which is arguably the freest, least scripted section of the film–blends the children and adults quite well, and is quite enjoyable for the most part. It’s when the film’s focus shifts over to Mason that it begins to lose its way a little.
It helps that Hawke and Arquette are both quite good, Hawke as the undisciplined man-child who eventually grows up (more or less), and Arquette as the one trying to hold everything together and provide a better life for herself and her children, while contending with failing marriages, tight finances, and her childrens’ sloth. They both feel quite real throughout; I have issues with the writing for Olivia (more on that in a moment), but Arquette certainly gives it her all.
And I’ve barely mentioned Lorelei Linklater’s performance (which also feeds into a point I’m about to make). Early on, she’s clearly the scene-stealer (a couple of the friends I saw the film with noted that Linklater seemed to be focusing more on her than Coltrane early on), singing “Oops I Did It Again” to Mason while he’s trying to sleep, refusing to move (and popping her “p”s in a rather amusing manner), etc. But as the film progresses, she too becomes passive and detached (and I wonder how much of that was Lorelei), until, at Mason’s graduation party, she says maybe two words of congratulations to him. At first she’s arguably the highlight of the film, but she ends up kind of fading into the background. (She also looks a lot like Aubrey Plaza towards the end. Anyone else notice that?)
The film’s portrayal of its female characters is really quite problematic, and at times you can almost hear the film say, “Women…amirite, guys?” Because when we see Olivia bring so many bad men into her life, I at least wanted to understand why. And the film never even tries to answer the question. Is she desperate for someone to give her stability in life? Is she the problem (since Bill gets worse after their marriage, as does her second husband)? The question is barely asked, let alone answered–and near the very end, Mason Sr. suggests that Olivia could’ve been more patient with him, to which Mason replies “Would’ve saved me that parade of drunken assholes”. Not that I’m suggesting Linklater is blaming Olivia, per se, but we never really get to look inside of her; about the most explanation we ever get is a resigned, bitterly humorous, “I like making poor life choices.” Again…”Women…amirite, guys?”¹
The portrayal of Sheena is arguably even worse. She and Mason become a couple, seemingly because that’s what young people do. They break up, because that’s what happens. I know that’s what happens. I went through high school, too. But what draws them together is never really explored, and when they break up, they have a long, convoluted conversation, the gist of which is that Sheena is now dating a college-age boy who plays lacrosse (Mason calls him “a dumb jock”), and she and Mason trade waspish comments until she leaves, declaring the conversation pointless, but not before saying “Not everything is a huge conspiracy against humanity”, which Mason counters with “I’m glad you can see the world that way”.
Again…I’m inclined to side with Sheena. But her own psychology is barely explored, just…”Women…amirite, guys?” And when Mason Sr. suggests she was too “square” for Mason, it’s kind of ridiculous. But at the end, he gets to meet up with this free-spirited dancer who thinks “the moment seizes us”, so maybe everything will be okay!
Throughout all this, I haven’t actually talked about Ellar Coltrane’s performance. And I should say, hard as it is to judge his performance objectively, I rarely felt, in his case, like I was watching an actor reciting dialogue. Whether the end result of careful tutoring and tailoring of the material by Linklater, or because of his own talents, I believed in Coltrane as Mason, as frustrating as he could be. That he also bears a strong resemblance to Ethan Hawke (and Hayden Christensen, for that matter) only makes his casting seem the smarter choice. As with the other leads, my issue lies more with the writing than the actual performances. I don’t think he should really be in Oscar contention, and I’m not sure how much of an acting career he has ahead of him, but he did not let Linklater down.
The supporting cast is more of a mixed bag. Some of the other young actors are fine; others are not. One scene, where 11-12 year old Mason is hanging out with some friends and some older boys in a half-finished house, is so stilted, so obviously written and performed, that it’s kind of painful to watch. Yes, the scene involves a lot of bullshit posturing on the part of these characters, but everyone sounds like they’re trying to sound natural, and the effect is anything but. (At another point, on starting at a new school, Mason is told “Welcome to the suck”; I’ve never heard anyone say that, ever.)
And then there’s Enrique (Roland Ruiz), who is installing some pipeline at a family home, when Olivia tells him he should go back to school; when he cites the expense, she tells him community college is really quite affordable; several years later, he encounters them and tells Olivia “You changed my life”. And both times I’ve seen the film, the scene makes me cringe.
Now, there are plenty of possible objections to this moment. It’s kind of a white-savior moment (it’s also worth noting that this film, set in Texas, has no other Hispanic characters of note). It feels grotesquely contrived. It adds nothing to the film, and after he leaves, he’s promptly forgotten about. (Oh, and he tells Mason and Samantha to listen to Olivia. Almost forgot that.) But another friend I saw the film with defended the scene, saying such moments do happen, and when they do, they’re quite moving.
Fair enough. But the film, as I’ve noted already, tends to forget about non-recurring characters once they’ve made their exit, so the Henrique scene sticks out badly, an oasis of memory in a film that otherwise tends not to look back.
On a technical level, the film is adequate. The cinematography is, on the whole, pretty by-the-numbers; the darkroom sequence, bathed in red light, is the most visually interesting moment in the film. The soundtrack is mostly songs that were big at the time; remember Soulja Boy? Boyhood does. The only use of music which really stands out is the use of Family of the Year’s “Hero” as Mason leaves for college, which does rather poignantly underline the desire of the child to leave the nest. Otherwise, it’s a lot of “Oh, I remember that song”.
And I have to mention the Black Album. Mason Sr. gives Mason (for his 15th) a two-CD set of post-breakup songs by the members of the Beatles, painstakingly ordered and backing up Mason Sr.’s thesis that only together were the Beatles truly great (and the greatest band of all time, no less). It’s cute and all, but as someone who’s grown weary of the idea that 60s and 70s rock music was the most important thing in human history (and maybe just a little tired of the assertion that the Beatles were unquestionably the greatest band ever, period, full stop), it’s a bit of an eye-roller.
Linklater’s direction is mostly very low-key, with a few notable moments (an extended shot of life on an Austin street is easily the most interesting bit of composition on display). He does deserve credit for making the damned thing, for seeing the 12-year project out, but a little more panache wouldn’t have hurt.
It’s hard not to think of The Tree of Life, which is also about coming of age in Texas (though in Waco, in the 50s). ToL is by far the better film, too; far more stylistically accomplished, more evocative, more emotionally powerful (even as the characters are more archetypal), and with better music. (And dinosaurs. Don’t forget the dinosaurs.) I’m not going to spill more ink on how great ToL is, but suffice to say, before you go anointing Boyhood as some kind of definitive masterpiece, give it a look.
For all my gripes, I still think Boyhood is a well-done, very watchable film. It’s not really universal (not if you’re that far removed from Mason’s socioeconomic experience), but even if I stand against the tide of effusive praise, I will not deny it its qualities. In the end, it’s worth watching, just for the fact of its creation. But creation isn’t everything.
¹Also, this film has at least two student-teacher romances, one of which definitely begins while the student-teacher dynamic is in effect. Am I the only one who’s a bit bothered by that?