Boyhood is certainly a unique cinematic experience. Director Richard Linklater started an indie journey twelve years ago to incrementally film a young boy growing up into adulthood.
Whilst the film didn’t grab me in the way I wanted or expected, you can safely say Boyhood is a nice, interesting coming of age story.
From a technical standpoint, Boyhood achieves something that most films could only dream about. Boyhood is a social experiment in the same vein as the 7 Up documentaries – the audience watch a young boy growing up, witnessing the ups and downs of family life, childhood, friends and relationships. In that respect, the monumental effort to visualise the concept and to film the premise over that period of time, especially when there were no certain guarantees, is something that should be praised without question.
I guess where your ultimate enjoyment of Boyhood will depend on the story itself and whether you can relate and connect with the character of Mason (Ellar Coltrane) and his journey.
“I just feel like there are so many things that I could be doing and probably want to be doing that I’m just not.” – Mason
To be honest, Boyhood doesn’t have a consistent storyline. It’s a patchwork, capturing a collection of moments taken at a certain period of time. It’s a bit like watching a family home video and real life doesn’t have structured plot points!
The character of Mason, our main focus of the adventure is mainly a passenger throughout the film, often possessing a quiet, nonchalant attitude towards life. He would rather exist in the moment than being openly opinionated or throw a tantrum like a classic, moody teenager. He’s clearly smart and listens attentively. Mason’s life is ordinary – nothing overtly dramatic or spectacular happens in Boyhood. Everything is a subtle change of dynamics in comparison to his sister (played by Richard Linklater’s real life daughter) who rapidly changed through the years, both in attitude and looks.
It starts off with Mason’s young self, looking at the sky most likely wondering what life has in store for him. We watch him go through unstable family units – his mum (Patricia Arquette) and dad (Ethan Hawke) are separated yet trying to make ends meet to still support the children. We watch as the mother marries and divorces step fathers who care more about alcohol and abusively advocating their right of way rather than being actual fathers to their inherited children. His biological father eventually moves on and starts his own family. Depending on the mother’s job status or income, the family unit moved around a lot, encountering new people, friends and lifestyles until Mason finally makes that step of independence when he starts college and adulthood.
At times Mason does provide a social commentary of life at a certain age. His conversation about humans being cyborgs is a showcase example of his inner and evolved thoughts as he begins to see the world through his own eyes rather than someone dictating it to him.
Mason: “So what’s the point?”
Dad: “Of what?”
Mason: “I don’t know, any of this. Everything.”
Dad: “Everything? What’s the point? I mean, I sure as shit don’t know. Neither does anybody else, okay? We’re all just winging it, you know? The good news is you’re feeling stuff. And you’ve got to hold on to that.”
If there are identifiable qualities with Mason then it is watching a young child trying to find himself, not sure what his ambitions or goals are. As kids, we don’t automatically have all the answers but the adults in the movie try their best to set life milestones and be educators, hoping Mason and his sister don’t repeat the same mistakes. Attending school, graduating, job, career, finding a suitable partner and the future – these are stages that we measure our success in this world, for better or for worse. So when Mason has his ear pierced, his hair long or his nails painted, his step fathers don’t agree, thinking he’s not taking life seriously. To them, these are small acts of defiance of their authority and control. In a strange irony, the adults themselves are going through the same thing as Mason. Some started again, finding a new-found responsibility, like the father. Some expected more from life but ended up making bad choices, like the mother. If there is a message that this film portrays (intentionally or unintentionally) is that no one goes through life unscathed and sometimes it does take a while to find your identity. In that aspect, Boyhood captures that essence perfectly.
Yet at the same time, whilst I realise not every teenager is the same in both how they act and behave, it’s that nonchalant attitude that makes it a little difficult to connect with Mason. There were times, especially when he was older where you wanted him to be a little bolder, maybe even stand for something. We hardly see him conflicted on what he wants or what he sees going on with his parents and the choices they make. He loves art, photography to be precise but needs a nudge to pursue it academically or to stand out from any other person pointing and shooting pictures on a camera. Did he feel anything for when his father moved on and started a new family of his own? What about his step fathers who were alcoholic and abusive? We always seem to catch the aftermath of something rather than viewing a precursor. Not saying “create drama for the sake of drama” but little insights like that can make a world of difference. Maybe even smile now and again – not all aspects of the world is gloomy.
Did the film need to be nearly three hours long to make that point? Probably not and there were times I did feel a little bored. Take away the fact it spans for twelve years and the film doesn’t leave anything to the imagination.
Despite the drawbacks, there were genuine moments where I couldn’t help but feel very nostalgic. Boyhood also represents a time capsule for things such as technology that we use to obsess about and how rapidly it has evolved over the years. It’s a quick advancement, something that you can easily take for granted. How each time period transitioned was also handled very well, using popular songs to highlight the change.
Boyhood is a film not for everyone. I certainly wasn’t totally head over heels crazy for it. Curiosity is probably the main reason why you would watch it. However I respect its intentions and it’s a skill that only director Richard Linklater could pull off. It’s a good solid 3 out of 5 film.