Editor’s Notes: Boyhood is now playing in limited release. For more coverage on the film, read Mel’s interview with its director, Richard Linklater.
It’s funny how Boyhood is considered a Perfect Movie (currently ranked 100 percent on critic aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes.com) when its director Richard Linklater clearly botches one of the film’s first shots: As boy wonder Mason Jr., played over the course of 12 years by Ellar Coltrane, marvels at shapely clouds in the sky, Linklater’s camera pulls back revealing that very wonder– Mason’s embryonic fascination with the sublime details of the natural world. You can see what Linklater wants to convey, but he cuts the shot far too early losing the impact and thus the thematic resonance.
At that moment, Linklater plays Coldplay’s 2000 hit “Yellow”for dubious purpose. The effect is clearly to create a sense of time, Boyhood’s main pretension, but the song adds no emotional rhythm or underlying meaning to the sequence itself (the lyrics “look at the stars; look how they shine for you”isn’t given enough time to linger across that image).
Since the Coldplay number serves little cinematic function, many viewers excuse it as smart naturalism–music that is matter-of-factly relayed into the groove of Boyhood’s as-years-go-by experiences as if it were a morning song on a local FM radio station. But I’d disagree; Linklater lacks the storytelling texture to let those period details take on that effect –it achieves only specious nostalgia. On the other hand, I didn’t care for Bernardo Bertolucci’s Me & You, the maestro’s first film in ten years since the powerful The Dreamers, but at least his use of Arcade Fire and David Bowie had a confident function: it was vibrant anachronistic music that expressed a displaced Italian teenage boy’s love for Western pop.
This generation of filmmakers constantly strive to emulate Linklater’s seeming diversity, and penchant for documenting the mundanities of life. But Linklater’s disengaged technique sets a bad example for our young filmmakers.
Linklater’s form of “naturalism” has, strangely, become a huge inspiration for today’s independent filmmakers. You see it a lot in the young art today. A self-taught filmmaker, Linklater, like the also overrated Steven Soderbergh, has made a career seesawing from experimental narratives (Slacker, The Before Trilogy, Waking Life) to bigger-budgeted Hollywood projects (Bad News Bears, School of Rock), while maintaining artistic integrity (that is- if there were artistry). This generation of filmmakers constantly strive to emulate Linklater’s seeming diversity, and penchant for documenting the mundanities of life. But Linklater’s disengaged technique sets a bad example for our young filmmakers.
The problem being because, with the exception of a few, Linklater’s films lack bite and craft. He can certainly write a screenplay, but the often endless and scattered dialogue only seems to reinforce a self-absorbed creator who lacks discipline and a good grasp of visual symbolism and composition. This point could explain that unrefined early shot: Linklater is not a showman–he’s not known for conducting a great, visually sumptuous sequence or shot like contemporaries Paul Thomas Anderson or Steve McQueen. His words come first, visuals last. The actors somewhere in the middle.
Linklater, a Gen X outgrowth of America’s hippie counterculture, keeps the camera still and shows, sluggishly without metaphor, the ennui and social detachment of his free spirited characters, who have little recourse other than to spout their desultory left-wing politics and philosophies. Like many cinephiles, I enjoy films that study the listlessness of human beings–consider: Kelly Reichardt, Lynn Shelton, back to Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Michelangelo Antonioni. There are very few films that can top L’Avventura, one of those great Italian pictures where “nothing happens”.
What irritates me about Boyhood is that the perfunctory nature of Linklater’s episodic narrative, which, for the first half of the film, jarringly leaps from one year of Mason’s childhood to the next without implying his spiritual growth, has been overlooked for beautifully capturing the arbitrariness of life. I understand that notion in theory, but Linklater’s style lacks so much perspective and intent that that interpretation, I’m afraid, can only take us so far towards arriving at a credible idea that is actually paved throughout the narrative and not merely conveyed in Linklater’s verbose dialogue.
Like Gravity, Boyhood suckers in audiences based on a central stunt –one that’s, the saddest irony of all, not even derived from the actual storytelling craft but instead the film’s technical/creative process.
So far, my argument that the film lacks cohesion and thematic vision might sound foolish and myopic to the film’s admirers; that’s probably because Boyhood has an explicit, pre-sold “theme”- TIME- and is inherent in the film’s time-based plot device and, more insidiously, its marketing campaign. Like Gravity, Boyhood suckers in audiences based on a central stunt –one that’s, the saddest irony of all, not even derived from the actual storytelling craft but instead the film’s technical/creative process.
That’s not to say Linklater’s accomplishment, in that respect, isn’t laudable. That’s also not to say a movie that is pre-sold in such a way can’t be good. Unfortunately though, in both cases, process trounces artistry. What’s fascinating, however, is that Boyhood not only chronicles Mason’s life from childhood to adolescence to young adulthood, but Linklater’s own abilities as a filmmaker – or at the very least the man’s ability to understand what this film is really about. Because the film’s last hour, which involves Mason’s pubescence and development into a full-blown thinker, is pretty competent as if Linklater finally found the film’s emotional focus: it’s well-observed and heartfelt, which contradicts the first half’s lack of sentimentality. The screenplay stops falling back on aimless conversations and actually incorporates convincing dramatic incident. As a result, the events feel way more natural.
In Boyhood, Linklater regular Ethan Hawke is Mason’s dad, Mason Sr., and Patricia Arquette is his mom, Olivia. They are fine actors, but their parental characters are one-way roads in terms of their behavioural and speech patterns. It’s understood that Olivia has bad taste in men, but her relationship with an abusive psychology teacher named Bill Welbrock (Marco Perella) defies believability. Perella’s scenes fly way over the top, especially one dinner table scene which adds melodrama to a film that pretends authenticity. The fact that Linklater doesn’t find “time”to portray Welbrock with redeemable qualities and uses one disposable car scene (there are many of them in varying contexts) to justify Olivia’s love for him confirms Linklater’s simplistic view of his characters.
Overall, Boyhood’s “ambitious”time device isn’t successful. Linklater, from a structural point-of-view, cannot properly handle narrative ellipses, which typically involves omissions in time or information that allow audiences to draw their own conclusions based on the breadth of action and character. Coltrane, a natural talent who plays Mason – at every age – on the right note, is not consistently envisioned as the leading vessel of this story. Therefore, we only truly identify with him in his high school-college years when Linklater plants the camera in front of him, listens, and hears the kid speak: “do we seize the moment or does the moment seize us?”, is Mason’s last line – and it’s an endearing one.
Linklater deserves points for efficiency- the movie is paced surprisingly well at 166 minutes- but too much of Mason’s titular experience seems merely presented, not examined–especially his white, middle-class privilege that yields the most stereotypical Republican grandparents and layabout liberal father. Linklater’s narrow-minded politics avoids complexity and universality; one bit involving a Hispanic gardener who seeks an education on behalf of Olivia is portrayed with shocking condescension towards the man’s ethnicity.
Boyhood was made on and over time, yes. But it does not, with a pendulum force effect, feel time. The film should expand and become an exploration of growth, which is derivative of time. It’s what Michael Apted’s Up documentaries did so well, while also scrutinizing the privilege of its English prep subjects. Linklater does neither; Boyhood shows time without the growth.
Note: This article was written on Thursday, July 17. As of today, Boyhood now has a ranking of 99% on Rotten Tomatoes with 134 Fresh and 2 Rotten reviews.