Richard Linklater’s new film Boyhood is anything but forgettable, and is sure to be talked about for years to come. There’s nothing else quite like it. What’s driving most of the criticism is its hook, namely, locking a cast into a single production over twelve years. But, for argument’s sake, let’s disregard this fact. Let’s assume for a moment that Ellar Coltrane was not cast, and a different actor played Mason at the various ages the audience inhabits his life. Would the film lose its impact? Does the story’s effectiveness depend on Linklater’s experimental choice? At first, I thought Boyhood was all concept no content, but the deeper you go the more there seems to be.
My initial reaction to the film was sort of ambivalent. It doesn’t swell to any sort of emotional conclusion, or resolve any dissonance. Mason, fully grown and Mumford and Sons’d up, is spouting some vague philosophical cuteness to a pretty girl, and it cuts to black. Moving from one scene to the next doesn’t really have any sort of rudder to guide the audience. Mason ages several years in a matter of just a few short scenes, and there isn’t any perceivable rhyme or reason to these time jumps. What’s more, Mason doesn’t really have a whole lot of defining characteristics other than being a generally cute kid who [eventually] cultivates a passion for photography/creativity. Mason just kind of exists rather than develops. The easiest example of this is when you put him side by side his two separate verbally abusive step-fathers (both of whom, sadly, came off way too stereotypical to yield sympathy from me).
In both instances Mason reacts to abuse rather passively, despite having had years in between the two step-fathers to process how to handle it. You could argue that in the second instance, Mason sort of shuts the door in his face, but that’s really pushing it. His personality doesn’t drastically change–he doesn’t make choices that he then has to grapple with. Mason’s just a timid dude, and for this film that’s perfectly fine–he’s likable enough to carry the film, which is really the most I think you could say about Ellar Coltrane’s performance. He’s a token, cute, sweet, responsible, kid–he’s average, like most of us–and he’s won enough of my affection to sit through three hours of somewhat-related scenes of his “life.” The family and friends surrounding Mason are doubly charming, and it’s delightful to be with them as time passes. I’m rooting for all of them, and honestly, you wouldn’t even know the film is approaching three hours long.
So, if there is no decisive plot, no character transformation (excluding aesthetic), no assertion, why the hell is this film so gosh darn likable? Some might say that it’s because seeing such a realistic depiction of life is enjoyable. NICK, THE FILM LACKS STRUCTURE AND MEANING BECAUSE LIFE LACKS STRUCTURE AND MEANING. IT’S SUPPOSED TO FEEL LIKE A DISJOINTED STRETCH OF SEEMINGLY RANDOM EVENTS BECAUSE THAT’S WHAT LIFE IS LIKE, MAN! To those who hold this position, I say to you: BULL! Life is life. Movies are not life. If movies = life, then you could watch three hours of a lady bug crawling across a fern. And so a film’s success cannot depend on how close to reality you make it–unless it’s a documentary, and even then there’s a manipulation of reality but that’s a whole other article. The point is, making something realistic is not the same as making something real. This is not to say that building empathy by virtue of it’s depiction of real people in real circumstances is useless. Of course it isn’t. But it still isn’t enough by itself to make this film work. There has to be something more substantial to yield the emotional response that I experienced, and there is.
Initially it wasn’t clear to me why the film was such a critical darling, but when I started thinking about the film as a whole it started to click. No individual character changes significantly, aside from a haircut. But ALL of them change a tiny bit. Mom chases her passion, achieves her career goals, and then is left questioning if it’s truly what she wanted. Dad is clinging to the youth that was robbed from him by becoming a parent at 23–and decides to settle down the traditional way, later in life (once Mason is 18). Sister is really bad at giving toasts at graduation parties, but hopes that she’ll improve someday*. And Mason, even after being alive for 18 years, 12 of which we’ve watched him for–still doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life. All of it is perfectly imperfect. To borrow from the monumentally awesome Jon Kabat-Zinn, “Wherever you go, there you are.” All of these events, however causally linked they are or aren’t, have culminated to Mason, sitting with friends enjoying himself. In an infinite number of ways to arrive at this moment, existence has worked its hand pulling knobs and levers behind the curtain, and chosen this path for Mason and his family. “The moments, they seize us.“
Ultimately I think it’s a very personal film that’s either going to massage your nostalgia buttons or isn’t. It’s heartwarming, satisfyingly funny, and enjoyable–but, nothing totally new. I think it’s a good film disguised as a great film. But what the hell does any of this really mean about Boyhood anyway? Why can’t you just tell us if it’s good or not? Go see it an experience it for yourself, and why don’t you say goodbye to that little horseshit attitude?
*This is a joke.