I was intrigued by Boyhood when I heard about in theaters, but decided to wait for the DVD–and now I’ve finally watched it, and returned the DVD to the library for the other 400 people waiting for it! You’ve probably heard the buzz about this movie, especially since it won at the Golden Globes. I found it interesting…and yet it ultimately didn’t quite work for me.
I realized as I started watching that I didn’t know anything about the plot. Everything I’d heard about the movie was about the very unusual filming plan. The director (Richard Linklater) spent 12 years on this movie, coming back to film the same actors each year so that the characters, especially the boy of the title, can age throughout the movie. After watching, I realized there was very little word about the plot because there’s very little plot. Mostly it’s about a boy (and his sister) growing up.
The back of the DVD box described this as the “epic journey” of a boy reaching adulthood, which I think gets it completely wrong. Half the point is that it’s not an epic journey. It’s an ordinary boy with an ordinary life captured on screen over 12 years. That’s not to say that there’s no drama in the circumstances: when the movie opens, Mason and his sister Samantha are being raised by their single mom (Patricia Arquette), with an absentee father (Ethan Hawke) who drifts in and out over the years. Their mother gets married (and divorced) twice more, and Mason goes through his own romantic ups and downs once he hits high school. But the plot is not epic, and is still secondary to the simple passage of time and the development of the characters.
Which brings me to what was both the best and most problematic part of the movie for me. I love this concept. I mean, LOVE it. And it was interesting to watch, and I absolutely appreciate the movie as an artistic accomplishment. I think Linklater successfully made the movie he was trying to make, and the aging of all the characters (not just Mason) is fascinating and so different from anything I’ve seen before.
But. The whole point is that we’re following the characters, and especially Mason, right? And there we come to what, for me, was the absolutely impossible to overcome flaw of the film. I didn’t like Mason. He’s fine as a kid, you can’t really dislike a seven year old, but even then he’s pretty passive. And then when he got to high school age…I didn’t like him. He wasn’t someone I’d want to spend time with. He seemed to spend all his time drinking (way underage, by the way), smoking (cigarettes or marijuana, I’m not sure) and taking photographs, which he apparently has talent with, but he doesn’t have any discipline, drive or even clear goals. On the side of perhaps softer qualities like compassion or kindness–well, he had nothing meaningful or even sympathetic to say to his mother when she has an emotional meltdown in one of the last scenes in the film. So–I’m left loving the concept of watching a boy grow up, but not particularly wanting to watch this boy.
Maybe this is why I like fantasy. Fantasy stories seem to expect something more from their lead characters. Heroes and heroines in fantasy stories really are heroic, not just not-terrible.
As to the other characters here, Mason’s sister Samantha is an utter narcissistic brat and really doesn’t change, whether she’s seven or nineteen. Their father has a better maturing story than his son, since he actually reaches a point of being responsible (of course, he has twenty-three years head-start…and I admit a soft spot for Ethan Hawke anyway). And Mason’s mother–I honestly wish this movie had been about her. Because she is far more engaging. She goes back to school, determined to get a degree to earn more money and create a better life for her family, and succeeds. She gets into a very bad relationship, but she gets out again. And at the end of the movie she’s trying to reinvent herself again as her kids leave home. That, I think, could have been a movie I really loved.
Which perhaps is as good a lead-in as any to mention the Before trilogy, Linklater’s other collaboration with Ethan Hawke. Each movie is set nine years apart, and is essentially the same two characters talking to each other over the span of a day or less. And I love those movies, because the conversations are weird and rambling and fascinating and ones I’d like to have. Boyhood, on the other hand, did not turn out to be about a family I’d particularly like to know.
So where does that leave me? I did actually enjoy the movie and I’m glad I watched it–but it was a mostly intellectual enjoyment. There were moments that were more engaging (there are even some Before-style conversations between Mason and his high school girlfriend, but they’re too sparse in the entirety of the film) but most of the film didn’t work for me emotionally. Leaving me feeling that the film was brilliant art–but I just can’t love it.
Buy it here: Boyhood