This review is set to appear in the September issue of the online magazine Newtopia.
Written and Directed by Richard Linklater
Starring Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette, Ellar Coltrane, Lorelei Linklater
Last week, while re-watching the trailer for Richard Linklater’s new(ish) film Boyhood on YouTube, I began to scroll through the comments section. Most liked the film or maligned the few who’d downvoted the video. Others put forth more nuanced criticism — mostly positive, first semester of film school-type stuff about Boyhood’s technical innovation/ambition of overall concept/“realness”/etc.
One would-be critic’s diatribe stood out amongst the otherwise effusive praise. The film, argued the original poster, violated several of the most hallowed tenets of dramatic filmmaking. Its protagonist is a normal kid, when the Tenets dictate that the main character should be Someone Interesting and Dynamic, with a series of Character-Defining Challenges to overcome. The Fate of The Entire World should be at stake by the time the climax rolls around (Boyhood doesn’t have one). Mason, Boyhood’s main subject, is a Boring Character, and by extension so is the actor. They should’ve cast a different actor, presumably a six-year-old with Star Power, because Charisma is the most important trait an actor can possess.
Intrigued, I turned to the rest of the Internet for other ideas. Turns out that a thorough post-mortem is being conducted on the film via sites like IMDB, Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes. Search “Boyhood main character boring” and a slew of examiners leaps from the aether, scalpels in hand. More than a month after the film’s release, critics continue to dissect Mason’s debatable boring-ness, as well as Linklater’s own life, possibly in an attempt to prove not only that Linklater’s boyhood was equally mundane but that he fleeced us all by transforming his nap-inducing life into a moderately-grossing film. Many pixels have been arrayed aruging Boyhood’s virtues. The movie is good, critics seem to be saying, but how good is it, really? As if, examining the film’s parts, we could reverse engineer them and build a better one. Could a story about a character so ordinary possibly be worthy of praise? Was the conceit (the actors age with the film) clever enough to support a plot whose only lasting, ongoing development is the march of time?
The democracy of myth-building in the Information Age has given rise to many such discussions. Whether a particular story is cast into the firmament or consigned to history’s trashcan relies heavily on reviews and reviewers who maintain a culture of approval ratings, percentages and rankings. The line between popularity and artistic integrity has been blurred, twisted and inverted to such a degree that it’s hard to separate the significant from the merely entertaining.
Enter Boyhood, brimming with nostalgia and the thrill of recognition, a film that defies the popular logic simply by being earnest. The film follows Mason (Ellar Coltrane), a six-year-old boy whose parents’ divorce has left mom Olivia (Patricia Arquette) with primary-care duties, bouncing from loser to loser in search of someone to help her do the dishes, get the kids to school and generally provide structure in her children’s lives. Mason, Sr. (Ethan Hawke), upon meanwhile, eschews a more carefree parenting style. He breezes back into town after a stint on a boat in Alaska, drives the kids to the bowling alley in his Mustang (“Not like this car has any seat belts.”) and treats them to french fries for dinner. An immediate tension is felt between the fun-loving dad and hard-luck mom, yet Mason and his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) navigate the rocky waters of shared custody with an understanding that belies their age.
The film subscribes not to a Syd Field-esque “inverted checkmark” structure but to a sort of staircase framework, each moment building on the last to inform the next. Innocuous details sprout and grow into events full of meaning as time passes; while the audience may not notice Mason’s stepfather ordering another bottle of wine at a family dinner, or laugh as he hides a handle of tequila behind a jug of laundry detergent, by the time he smashes dishware on the dinner table we recoil in horror at a reckoning long overdue. Truth comes fluttering out of the darkness in bits and pieces, like moths to a porch light.
Much of the film’s realism derives from a kind of engineered spontaneity. There’s little in the way of exposition, and Linklater relies as much on visual cues or soundtrack (late ‘90s acts Coldplay, The Flaming Lips, The Hives all make appearances) to inform the plot as he does on naturalistic dialogue. A black “X” on Mason’s girlfriend’s hand at an Austin dive bar (she’s underage) or Mason’s glower as his head is forcibly shaved speak volumes. Transitions between years take place without title cards — suddenly Mason has taken to wearing hooded sweatshirts, or has a piercing in his ear, or has stopped covering every surface of his room with Dragon Ball Z memorabilia, and we know he has aged. The film’s sense of realism is further buttressed by a Dickensian set of cameo roles, from a gun-toting McCain supporter to a calcified old liquor store manager, each painted with deft, sure strokes.
Various parts of Texas play host to a life defined by upheaval and dichotomy. Vast orange plateaus form the backdrop for candid father-son discussions or solemn crosscountry drives, while dingy white apartments and bleached-out fixer-uppers signify Olivia’s desire to put it all together. One parent is all about spirit and serendipity while the other wants to build something lasting for her children. Fitting, then, that Mason develops into a placid young man whose emotional peaks and valleys are manifested mostly through shrugs or a knotted brow. As echoed in those YouTube comments, it can be jarring to watch a character who doesn’t struggle mightily against oppressive forces or reach for a dream. But Boyhood’s major virtues are its even hand and relatability, values that are reflected in Mason’s largely unspoken quest to understand. Destiny is fallacy, in Mason’s/Linklater’s eyes, since all we can do is live moment to moment.
How about a moment of appreciation for Linklater, forgoing the typical Hollywood trope of exalting the lone, noble hero? The Eccentric Asshole has long been a mainstay of Western cinema, strongarming audiences into liking them, or else, as they bull their way toward resolution. The voyeuristic charm of Boyhood lies in its inviting aura, free from such burdensome narrative shackles as beginning, middle and end. Mason gets the girl, then loses her. He gets second place in the photo contest. He attends the college his parents wanted him to, then gets stoned on the first day and hangs out in the desert. All this leaves the audience free to simply appreciate the beauty and humor of moments that we have all shared or wish we had.
One might imagine a life so full of meaningful moments, and endeavor to build such meaning out of the fabric of the everyday. Manifesting that belief is much more difficult. Near the film’s conclusion, Mason’s mother sits distraught at the kitchen table of her tiny new apartment, weeping as Mason packs his final boxes and heads to college. “I just thought there would be more,” she says, with sinking feeling. Recognize that sting? It’s the usual feeling one gets walking out of the cinema, head full of blazing action, revenge scenarios, impossibly flawed and beautiful people, the feeling of alighting back on the gum-encrusted ground, $25 poorer for the ticket and the popcorn. Watching Boyhood, though, imparts a different feeling: one of ripeness, abundance and a belief in something intrinsic and vivacious. What more could you want?