Boyhood is a wonderful film but an inexperienced lead performance and fleeting nature hamper it’s Best Picture worth.
Movies almost always deal with a small snapshot in time. A period of time that is relatively short in the grand scheme of things. Sometimes films present us with the classic past and present scenario, where we see what is unfolding now, as well getting into some related plot from sometime many years prior. Even more rare is a movie that spans large periods of time. This is probably largely due to the fact that you have to film the movie at a particular time, and therefore if you want to show the same character at two different times in their lives, you will need two different actors. Therefore, the time gap needs to be pretty long in order to add some kind of credibility and overcome the fact that older Joe Smith looks a hell of a lot different than younger Joe Smith. Richard Linklater, however, looked to do something that hadn’t been done before, which is film a movie that showed 13 years of the same character’s life. However, he wasn’t going to use any gimmicks. He was going to film the movie over the course of 12-13 years, and Boyhood is the unprecedented result.
I don’t want to make Boyhood sound like some kind of experiment. It really isn’t that. I’m not sure how Linklater describes his thought process, but his film making prowess is in telling subtle, real life stories that don’t rely on huge dramatic conflicts or massive plot points. His Before Sunrise trilogy is a fantastic example, and here he wanted to make a movie about a boy’s childhood, and this was the most authentic way to do so. It must have been a task trying to select his cast, knowing that he’s stuck with them for the next 12 years, and that’s largely why the only really big name involved is Ethan Hawke. Hawke of course has the Before Sunrise relationship with Linklater, so that makes sense for him to play the boy’s father. The boy, Mason, is played by Ellar Coltrane, and his mother is played, by Patricia Arquette. The acting in the film overall leaves a little bit to be desired in all honestly, largely from the supporting cast. I also have to admit that I didn’t particular love Coltrane’s work. He was fantastic as a younger kid, but it seemed like as he grows up, his ability to act effectively got worse. He became almost wooden and emotionless. Perhaps this was intentional, but for me I just didn’t think it paid off.
So the acting of many characters left something to be desired, but this is understandable and the big talent is less likely to take on this commitment. However, I will say that Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke were the ones who really shined here. Their performances as Mason’s divorced parents are really what added the life to the film, Hawke’s in particular as the father who is seeking to become a better man and a better influence in his children’s lives. While the film is supposed to be about Mason’s life, it was the way that his parents developed and changed as people throughout the 12 years that really interested me. Ethan Hawke brings an incredible energy and heart to his character, that is so watchable, which is something that I think has made him successful over the years. He has that every man quality about him that is perfect for this kind of thing.
In terms of story line and plot, in all honesty, there really isn’t one. The boy’s life is the story line. As Mason grows up we see these little dramas pop up in his life and we see that micro-story unfold over the course of twenty minutes or so. The film doesn’t really stop to dwell on any particular experience, and it generally just moves on to the next stage of Mason’s life. It doesn’t really seek to tell us in that moment, because the idea is that we are going to see a new, older Mason, who is the way that he is as a result of the things that have happened to him prior. While I like the premise, and each moment is generally engaging and interesting, there are times when you start to wonder what does it all mean, or what is the purpose? If you’re a fan of tight plots, with connected story lines then Boyhood just isn’t a movie for you. Boyhood takes pride in not really saying anything drastic, or providing answers to all sorts of big questions. It tends to pose them, and then not answer them. I won’t deny that this was frustrating at times, but at other times it worked really well, and I do understand it.
The film had a lot of positives. There were some moments in the film that were extremely easy to relate to. Moments where you think “I went through that, I understand it.” The problem with the film at times, is just that it can basically be defined as a long movie with a bunch of moments, one after the other. They don’t necessarily tie into one another or provide important information that we need to continue watching. I hesitate to call this a mistake or a negative, because it’s intentional. But at times it just makes the film a little slow for my taste. Then when you combine the relatively unimpressive acting from Coltrane, it causes a problem, because he is just unable to give the performance needed in pivotal moments to give a scene the emotional impact it needs. Older Mason, near the end of the film, is involved in a lot of genuinely emotional situations. His wooden demeanor and lack of facial expressions just sucked a lot of the feeling from them, where a better actor might have had me choked up or glued to the screen. I give the kid credit, as his performance was not terrible by any means and he did it over 12 years, but it just didn’t come together in key segments.
All in all, Boyhood is an ambitious movie, and a grand venture by an incredible filmmaker. Linklater did a wonderful job of capturing an entire childhood, and got fantastic performances from Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, who may find some career re-invigoration for her efforts. It is a film that has a lot of incredible moments, but that doesn’t really seek to provide some grand whole. If you’re looking for answers, which at times I’ll admit, I was, then go somewhere else. This one isn’t for you. Boyhood is a film that shows us that moments come and go, and we won’t always get closure, or an answer. We just go on with our lives, like the characters in this film do, and as the years go by things change and pieces fall into place sometimes. Sometimes they don’t. Boyhood is just a film that shows us that process, without seeking to explain it. There’s something beautiful about that, but there’s also something that isn’t ideal for a cinema screen. Linklater being the master that he is, makes it work well, and although I don’t at all think it’s worthy of Best Picture, it is a good film and one like no other before it.