Let me say up front that Boyhood was a hard film to review. It was hard to review because I had a fairly mixed reaction to the film, and I felt that I had to carefully word every single point I’m about to make in order not to come across as someone who only enjoys plot-driven, blockbuster cinematic fare.
But the truth is, while I liked Boyhood, it didn’t blow me away in the same manner that it did critics and general audiences alike, and I need to be honest to my personal response when appraising the film, regardless of how that response makes me look.
Boyhood (for the three of you out there who aren’t already aware) charts the development of kid-next-door Mason Evans Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) from his early childhood through to his late teens. Over the course of the 12 years covered in the film, we get to see witness Mason Jr. go through various coming of age experiences, all while being raised by his divorced parents Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke) and Olivia (Patricia Arquette).
This obviously a fairly conventional yarn; the added hook is that director Richard Linklater chose to tell this story by shooting the events of these 12 years in real time, and we get to watch the entire cast (particularly Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater as his sister Samantha) grow older as the narrative progresses.
Certainly, it’s almost impossible to fault Boyhood for its ambition. It’s a monument to Linklater’s dedication to his craft that he not only kept the cameras rolling intermittently for over a decade, but also that he was able to fashion something cohesive out of it at the end.
Indeed, from a technical standpoint, I’ve got almost nothing but praise for the film, particularly the editing by Sandra Adair (seriously, compiling a 12 year jigsaw!), and the cinematography by Lee Daniel and Shane Kelly, which manages to look both polished and yet “real”, as befits the almost documentary nature of the film.
Similarly, the acting is outstanding across the board. As I’m sure proved a source of relief to Linklater, Coltrane turns out to be a capable actor who believably matures alongside his character, and Hawke, as the dad slowly getting his act together, and Arquette, as the responsible mother who nonetheless keeps making the same mistakes, both turn in performances that are brilliant yet suitably restrained.
Yep – any way you cut it, there’s a lot to love about Boyhood. So why didn’t I love it?
It basically boils down to the fact that I wasn’t gripped by the story, and (with one notable exception), I didn’t really find any of the characters compelling.
I’d like to address my issues with the story first, and to do that, I need to quickly clarify the difference between plot and story.
When I talk about the plot of a film, I’m talking about the events that happen over the course of its narrative; when I talk about a film’s story, I’m talking about the way in which the characters, themes and filmmaking techniques have been combined with the plot to give depth and resonance to that narrative.
Let me make it clear that I wasn’t put off by the lack of a traditional, three-act plot structure in Boyhood. Not only would this have felt wrong, given the “real life” setting of the film, but I’m also a firm believer that if a film’s characters, themes, visuals and soundtrack are executed well enough, you can get by with a fairly minimalist and shapeless plot (I actually like Linklater’s earlier film Dazed and Confused for this very reason).
Still, aside from the fact that I was able to relate to several moments throughout Mason Jr.’s maturation (and this was helped generously by the many cultural touchstones littered throughout the film), I was otherwise left pretty cold by the story and found it dragged at times, and I’m fairly certain this was due to my other main gripe with the movie: I wasn’t overly thrilled with the characters.
It makes sense really. As I’ve already said, character is one of a series of story elements that can make or break a film, especially one light-on in the plot department. Given I liked virtually every other aspect of the story, I wasn’t surprised to find that what dragged things down for me were the characters used to tell it.
My second wildly defensive statement of the review: please don’t think I’m suggesting a character needs to be likeable for them to be entertaining to watch. On the contrary, all I require from a character is that they be captivating, even if they are otherwise detestable (some of my favourite characters include Tony Soprano, Charles Foster Kane and Walter White, bastards all).
My problem with Boyhood was that I didn’t find any of the characters other than Mason Sr. enthralling (and part of that is probably down to Hawke’s stellar work in the role). That’s not to say I think the characters weren’t well-developed or three-dimensional, as for the most part, they were.
But I found Olivia to be frustrating (although that might well be the point with her) and Samantha and Mason Jr.’s girlfriend to be irritating, and worst of all, I really came to dislike Mason Jr. himself, which is a bit of a deal breaker.
At this point I’ll put up my hands and say I think I’m being kinda unfair, because my aversion to Mason Jr. stemmed from him being a sullen little pseudo-intellectual – in short, every bit the teenager he’s supposed to be.
It might also be that he reminds me of myself when I was that age and just as brooding and pretentious, and that as someone only just entering my late 20s, not enough time has passed for me to look back at that version of myself fondly.
Who knows? But still, I didn’t like the kid, and it really dampened my enjoyment of the film overall (in the interest of full disclosure, my disconnect from the characters in Linklater’s Before… trilogy is why I’ve never really liked any of those films either – boy, I’m tipping some sacred cows tonight!).
In the end, I’d say that Boyhood is well-crafted film that undoubtedly deserves to be celebrated for its scope and execution. Whether or not you think it’s the best film in years or merely an interesting experiment will depend greatly on your expectations going in about its story and character, but I can say without reservation that it’s a movie definitely worth seeing.