Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is the story of Mason (Ellar Coltrane), a five-year-old boy in Texas. We follow Mason, his mother (Patricia Arquette), father (Ethan Hawke) and sister (Lorelei Linklater) along his maturation from wide-eyed innocent to a college kid with his own opinions and attitudes.
Linklater shot his foursome over twelve years, occasionally with all of them in a given scene, sometimes with just one or two. Through the decade-plus journey we witness Mason’s mom, who is separated from his father, struggle to establish a new career and love-life. We see Mason’s dad wrestle with an independent streak and how adulthood adapts it. Plus, there is Mason’s sister, who goes from being a bratty young girl to a slightly less bratty twenty-something.
Boyhood is an impressive technical feat. It’s not successful storytelling. Whether that is an innate problem with the method in which Linklater made the film is hard to determine, since there are few movies that have attempted such a tale. Michael Upted’s Up series pops into a group of people’s lives every seven years, but its documentary nature and large gaps allow for major changes. Truffaut followed his Antoine Doinel over several decades, though those movies were all of a piece, establishing full stories within. Boyhood is its own beast.
Linklater plops the audience into various moments along Mason’s life, a few more obviously significant then others. We see Mason meet his first step-father, and the eventual trouble that comes later with him. Linklater also gives us ordinary situations, such as being bullied in the bathroom at school. The problem is oddly simple; by spending such tiny snippets of time in a given time period, the characters fail to be developed and as such, when a the life-changing scenarios occur, they feel a bit cliché. While Mason is kind of an Any-kid USA, he’s also equally No-kid USA. Having so few defining elements to himself, Mason is more chess-piece than person.
Take the aforementioned bullying incident. Mason is briefly pushed around in the boys-room as a fresh-faced teenager. Punches aren’t thrown, but there is a little shoving. That’s about it. The scene brings nothing new to the timeless act, nor is it innately compelling. It also gives one only the faintest of glimpses of who Mason is as a person. Over twelve years, it’s only in the very last act that he begins to sprout as a personality. While the teenage years are certainly ones of rapid growth, one never gets a sense of what steps made him the young man he becomes. By being so broadly universal, Boyhood fails to be more than a string of childhood clichés.
There are bright spots. Hawke, a Linklater regular, is good here. His evolution from haphazard parental figure to a quiet, content dad that sees he wasn’t the best father is nicely presented. An interaction with his second wife’s family and his kids is a delight, as the liberal teens are met with an elderly couple that loves their bibles and their guns. This could quickly turn to over-the-top farce, yet has a sweetness layered throughout, with Hawke’s character recognizing the culture clash, even as there is genuine affection and warmth emanating from his step-parents.
This clashes violently with the time we get with Mason’s two step-fathers. As is a possible setback with this type of story, each step-father is a bland, stereotypical presence; one a drunk, the other a raging ex-military man who thinks “kids these days” don’t have the proper respect. These types of people exist. Linklater merely keep their fleshed out characteristics at a distance, to a negative effect.
I know I am largely alone on this one; Boyhood has been rapturously received by critics and the general audience. As a huge Linklater fan, it’s with a heavy heart to say I think Boyhood is just an alright film. I hope it’s a big hit. I hope you love it to pieces like most others do. I am on a steep, lonely ledge. It’s one I accept being on.
Boyhood opens in limited release in Seattle on Friday.