It was a very bold experiment for Richard Linklater to attempt to make a coming of age film that depicts a child's life from the age of six to eighteen, and to do so while filming a few days every year for twelve years was such an ambitious undertaking that it's a miracle it all turned out the way it did. There are risks involved in embarking on such a project- after all, this was not a documentary but a fiction film, an original screenplay that was going to have to depend on amateur child actors to eventually grow into (hopefully) somewhat believable characters. What if the kids suddenly decided they didn't want to do it anymore? What if another actor had gotten hurt or even died during the shooting of it? The success of a movie like this depends on a lot of things going well that are not in the filmmaker's control, and the fact that this movie turned out so well was a stroke of luck as much as anything else.
The greatest accomplishment of Boyhood is the experiment itself, which successfully documents the passage of time over the course of twelve years in just under three hours, and to be able to see the actors change physically in that time is remarkable to behold, especially the kids. The change from six years old to a teenager is faster and more dramatic than at any other point in a person's life, and it does feel wondrous to watch that take place on screen. The film opens in 2002 as Coldplay's "Yellow" kicks in over the opening credits, placing us back at that point in recent history, as the boy, our protagonist named Mason (Ellar Coltrane), is picked up from school by his frazzled mom Olivia (Patricia Arquette), who's on to him about getting his homework done (and not for the first time, as we'll see at so many points throughout the film- I wonder how often the "do your homework" refrain is uttered in the life of a parent). From that moment on we meet his sister Samantha (played by Richard Linklater's daughter Lorelei) and eventually are introduced to their dad Mason Sr. (Linklater devotee Ethan Hawke), who they see just occasionally since the two parents are split up. We also get the a quick glimpse at the first of Olivia's bad boyfriends, who are a constant source of pain and interruption in the kid's lives.
It's somewhat difficult to describe the film after this, because it meanders through Mason and Samantha's childhood, marking the passage of time through changing haircuts, Iraq War news footage in the background and the rapidly evolving technological advancements of the twenty-first century (from Apple Oregon Trail to tamagotchis to iphones). Sometimes Mason Sr. shows up to take his kids to baseball games, bowling, museums, and every time Ethan Hawke arrives we look forward to seeing him, because even as an absentee dad he's fun and he's funny and Hawke gives such a natural, lived-in performance that we immediately buy him as this somewhat immature, irresponsible but carefree figure that comes and goes from their lives as he pleases, getting the benefit of being the cool dad without having to do any of the actual parenting. That falls to Patricia Arquette, a single mom who has to go back to school to get a better job, raise two kids every day, and has faults of her own, the worst of which is being drawn to alcoholic and abusive men, whom she parades in and out of her children's lives the way so many weak-willed single mothers unfortunately do.
The broken family unit and the bringing up of these two kids in this environment is relatable and heartbreaking and absorbing to watch, as the movie pretty much treats the most banal moments of life as milestones, which of course they are, especially for anyone who shares the memories of the characters, through whichever prism that brings you in most. For me, the most interesting way in was through the parents, as the child actors are very mannered and I'm sorry to say, artificial in many of their line readings, but for the first half of the film that's not much of a problem. Even though it's titled Boyhood, it feels like the exploration of the family as a whole through which we are experiencing the twelve years. Unfortunately about midway through the film, when little Mason becomes a teenager, Linklater feels the need to develop him specifically as a character and give him a personality, and so he suddenly becomes very much the focus of the film, carrying it now entirely on his shoulders as he tries to find out who he is.
And frankly, who he becomes is a rather pretentious, annoying, insufferably pontificating kid who moans on and on to his girlfriend about the evils of life and social media (which is really communicating Linklater's own feelings, as I don't quite buy into any kid who never knew a world without the internet bemoaning the evils of Facebook), and I spent the last hour and a half of the movie waiting impatiently for Hawke and Arquette to come back and take the focus off this whiny brat who'd dispelled all of my sympathy for him from earlier in his life. Even the sister disappears at this point and we're stuck with the kid, who was really the least interesting character in the whole film. It's certainly possible that this is the kind of movie that depends on your own personal identification with the people in question- I personally was far more interested in Hawke, Arquette, and maybe even the sister, so Mason's personal journey through the self-important teen years was simply tedious and unbearable to me. But we must spend so much time with him in this stage (when he was only tangential to the experience as a child) that the movie starts to feel long and so it falls short of greatness and is certainly not Linklater's best work. But it is an effective and ambitious experiment that's well worth seeing, and whether or not you're personally moved may depend on your own life experience and how well it relates to Mason's. I liked and was involved in the first half of his childhood much more so than in the latter half, and for me the kid was easier to take before he developed his unfortunate personality.
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