Late in Richard Linklater’s episodic and ambitious new film, Boyhood, the main character, Mason, asks his father, “So, what’s the point?” To which his laissez-faire father laughs and replies, “What’s the point? I sure as shit don’t know. But neither does anyone else. We’re all just winging it. The good thing is you’re feeling stuff.”
As if explaining life and the film all in one line, that is a pretty neat and tidy way to tie up and add meaning on to a grand, yet scattered film. And for the most part, it works within the confines of the film, and against my better judgment, actually provides a quasi-satisfying ending.
But Linklater does not stop there. Soon after, there is another scene, this time between Mason and his mother. Instead of “the point” of life, they talk about the “moments” of life – graduation, marriage, death, etc. Conveniently, the film itself, which follows a young boy and his family through 13 years of his life, is also about the moments of life. Despite the fact that most of the film’s “moments” are on the smaller scale, this second over-explanatory ending is a little too on the nose.
But again, Linklater does not stop there. A third ending, this one less defined, follows Mason on his first day of college as he moves in, meets his roommate, and heads out a wilderness hike with his new friends. He has got his whole life ahead of him and he has a lot of potential. Maybe a sequel?
The three endings do not ruin the movie, in fact, they are just indicative of the film itself. As a cinematic experiment, Boyhood is big, bold, and more than admirable, but as film experience, it is casual, undefined, and stretched too thin.
One of Boyhood’s most endearing qualities, though, is that casualness. It gives the film a sense of realism that it so desperately wants to achieve. But the film, as ambitious as it seems, is rather low-key and mostly conventional. Not much noteworthy happens (which is not a problem in and of itself), just a kid growing up, dealing with issues most kids these days face (divorce, bullies, nagging parents, dating, etc.) And while the film does find more than a few impactful moments, it is meandering and languorous – perhaps intentionally, like life itself. Like some of Linklater’s more acclaimed works, the film relies on dialogue rather than action. And when drama does occur on-screen, it feels forced. The film stretches on for nearly 3 hours, but surprisingly never feels it. Again, it is that casual nature that saves it.
As a time capsule, the film is also interesting to watch, if for nothing else, to watch its characters age – and not just its coming-of-age star, Ellar Coltrane, but also its biggest star, Ethan Hawke (and his ever evolving facial hair, from cool goatee to off-putting old man mustache). Filled with an array of decade old artifacts, the film’s nostalgia is more genuine because it is real, rather than manufactured after the fact.
Following a character for 12 years as he comes of age is nothing new in cinema, but doing it with one actor over 12 actual years is extraordinary – its beyond remarkable. That in itself is something to marvel at here, but it is not enough to make it a great film – a great idea, solid execution, but just a good film in the end.
* * * * out of 5 stars (originally * * * ½ but it gets the extra ½ bump for effort)
Boyhood opens Friday, August 8 in three New Orleans-area theaters – Prytania Theatre, The Theatres at Canal Place, and AMC Elmwood 20 with various showtimes daily.
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