The inexplicable canonization of Boyhood

Richard Linklater’s Boyhood’ (second review)

5 minute read
A douche in a black GTO: Hawke (right) and Linklater. (© 2014 - IFC Films)
A douche in a black GTO: Hawke (right) and Linklater. (© 2014 - IFC Films)

I should have been the perfect audience for Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. I’ve been a fan of his since I first saw Slacker in 1991 and thought, “Wow. A movie doesn’t have to have a plot.” And I’ve enjoyed every movie of his I’ve seen since, especially the trilogy Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight.

One of the qualities I most admire about Linklater is how he plays with time. The Before movies, starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, were spaced nine years apart to show the progression of a relationship. Boyhood is even more daring. Filmed for one week each year for 12 years, it follows a boy named Mason from age six to 18. Linklater chose the unknown Ellar Coltrane to star, supported by Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette as Mason’s parents. Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter, plays Mason’s older sister.

The reviews of Boyhood have been utterly rapturous. Tom Long of the Detroit News called it “the most ingenious film of the century.” Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post wrote, “Boyhood isn't just a masterpiece. It’s a miracle.” It has a 98 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and 100 percent on Metacritic, and the L.A. Times’s Kenneth Turan chose not to review it, afraid that he’d mess up its perfect score. His reasons for disliking it were promptly rebutted by an overzealous Boyhood supporter.

"That's how teenagers talk"

After all that hype, I was quite let down. The very qualities that are meant to be Boyhood’s greatest strengths ultimately undermined my enjoyment of it.

Linklater banked on his child actors being able to carry the movie. In a film that bills itself as life playing out before your very eyes, the acting had better be pretty convincing. Unfortunately, Ellar Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater aren’t up to the task. Coltrane begins the film strong; with little dialogue to deal with, his luminous eyes and a sweet face successfully display wounded innocence. As he ages, the role becomes more challenging, and much of his acting involves slouching and hiding behind floppy hair. But the worst part is his adolescent delivery — a monotone, nasal whine. My husband said, “That’s how teenagers talk,” which is an unfair indictment. Coltrane is not a trained actor, and his delivery falls flat. Lorelei Linklater is even worse, on par with Francis Ford Coppola casting his daughter Sofia in Godfather III.

The movie is entitled Boyhood, but the most interesting characters in the movie are the parents. Olivia goes from single mom to successful professor, but never improves her taste in men. We sympathize with her when we first encounter Mason Sr. He’s a douche in a black GTO who breezes into his kids’ lives after two years’ absence to undermine his ex. But as we watch Olivia marry and divorce two drunk, abusive losers, we reconsider Mason Sr.’s virtues. By the end, he has grown up into the father and family man that Olivia had wanted him to be. Perhaps if she’d been a little more patient with him, things could have turned out a lot better for her family.

Maybe it’s my age showing, but to me, that’s a much more interesting story than the one we got. Part of it is that Coltrane simply lacks the gravitas to anchor the movie, so Arquette and Hawke steal it out from under him (Arquette appears headed for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar). The rest of the fault lies with the script. Yes, kids are subject to their parents’ whims, but Mason is particularly inert. He watches the dramas of his mother’s life play out. He wants to be a photographer but doesn’t want to actually take or develop pictures. In conversation with his girlfriend, he cynically ponders life, but she ultimately finds him depressing and dumps him. Linklater prefigured him in a line from Slacker: “Who’s ever written the great work about the immense effort required in order not to create? Intensity without mastery. The obsessiveness of the utterly passive.” The answer to that question appears to be: Richard Linklater.

Several scenes rang false to me, but the most egregious is how big insight of the movie is offered on a silver platter at the end of the film. Mason is in the wilderness, tripping with a girl on the first day of college. She says, “You know how everyone’s always saying seize the moment? I don’t know, I’m kind of thinking it’s the other way around, you know, like the moment seizes us.” He says, “Yeah, I know, it’s constant, the moments, it’s just — it’s like it’s always right now, you know?”

Preempting criticism with faux insight

After nearly three hours of watching stuff happen to Mason, I rolled my eyes. It would be fine if it were just stoned kids making pseudo-deep comments, but this was Linklater’s message, wrapped up in a bow. It also preempts criticism of the movie.

Life itself, like Boyhood, often lacks cogent meaning and dramatic resolution. We don’t always know why we do things or have the perspective to see the pattern. Then, like Olivia, we lament that life has passed us by while we waited for something momentous to happen. For a theme like this to work, I’d prefer not to be hit over the head with it, as if I weren’t capable of gleaning it myself. Slacker gave its audience much more credit. It’s O.K. if there’s no point, no big final epiphany. There’s no need to contrive one.

There were transcendent moments in this film, mostly between Mason and his father. It’s hard, as a parent, not to be moved by watching a child grow up before your eyes. I felt for little boy Mason — I’m not made of stone. But without the ultimate gimmick of filming the same actors over 12 years, this movie wouldn’t have made a fraction of its impression.

Linklater’s concept was ambitious, and I understand the urge to heap accolades on his inventiveness. I wish more established Hollywood filmmakers took such creative risks. But that alone was not enough to lift Boyhood up from an interesting experiment into a life-changing cinematic experience.

For Ilene Raymond Rush’s review of Boyhood, click here.

What, When, Where

Boyhood. Written and directed by Richard Linklater. Available to rent or buy on Amazon.

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