Boyhood (2014)

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*. Boyhood, almost immediately upon its release, took a place as one of the most critically acclaimed American films of the twenty-first century. But it didn’t find a mass audience, which both is and isn’t surprising.
*. It isn’t surprising because it’s not an effects-laden blockbuster with a built-in teen audience. It is surprising because Richard Linklater is, at heart, very much a pop artist.
*. It’s a movie that’s probably best known for being a stunt. It was filmed with the same cast over a period of twelve years, making it a kind of dramatic equivalent to the Up Series.
*. As with any movie that’s a stunt (and I don’t use that term pejoratively), the question that arises is whether it would be as interesting but for the stunt. Like “Would Memento be as good a movie if you ran it forward?” If Linklater had shot the movie in sixty days, using make-up to age Arquette and Hawke and casting three different actors as Mason, would critics have liked it as much?
*. I don’t think so. That’s not to say I think it’s a bad movie, but judged on its merits I think it’s more ordinary than it seems. Though being ordinary is part of what it’s about.

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*. There are various themes and leitmotifs that stand in lieu of a plot. Linklater doesn’t do plot, but he does know rhythm and his movies clop along at a pleasant pace through a series of interesting scenarios.
*. The first theme I was struck by was that of Mason being a spectator of his own life. He seems remarkably passive to me, especially considering the hormonal storm that adolescence is.
*. I don’t know if this was a point Linklater wanted to make, or if it was just the result of his telling Ellar Coltrane to play it down. There was no way he could have known if Coltrane was going to develop as an actor over the course of the project, so perhaps he wanted it to be a role that wouldn’t call for much.
*. The result is a little disappointing. Boyhood is, after all, a portrait of an artist as a young man, but Mason never seems very passionate, or indeed interested, in his photography. It’s even something his teacher upbraids him for at one point. There’s such a thing as being too laid back.
*. Or is this a generational thing? Are all young people like this today? I don’t know many so I can’t be sure.
*. In his Criterion essay on the film, Jonathan Lethem has a side note that gives what I think is a good example of how this passivity plays into our reading of the film. “The bathroom-bullying scene seems to me to exemplify how this film’s impassivity works in concert with its lead actor’s impassivity. Is this bullying important or not? Routine or a one-time thing? Would Mason Junior even recall it? Are these bullies regular players in a chapter of his life to which we’re not privy? Nothing gives us a clue.”
*. The second theme I wanted to flag is that of life as a road through a semi-desert landscape. Texas, sure, but more generic, a ribbon of asphalt representative of nothing happening. At the end of the film Mom (Arquette) tries to look back on a “series of milestones” and realizes the family were all on a road not so much to as through nowhere (it’s probably a road to nowhere as well, but this film doesn’t take us to the end of anything). “I just thought there would be more,” Arquette says, in what I think is the film’s most telling line.
*. I think this emptiness nicely reflects the way we accidentally drift into relationships on the basis of nothing much, then either drift apart or walk away from large or small accidents that may or may not leave scars (I suspect Linklater thinks they do, which is frustrating given the kind of movie this is). Nobody stays together, and all lives are disposable. Boyfriends and girlfriends are just the junk we pick up and then try to get rid of and find substitutes for.

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*. The combination of these two themes — Mason’s passivity and life as a journey where nothing happens — gives the film a bland quality. I don’t mean that in a bad way. I think most of us have had the experience of looking back on long stretches of our lives and wondering where the time went. The feeling that “it seems like it was just yesterday” really tells us that nothing at all registered in the intervening five, ten, or twenty years.
*. So the blandness adds to the sense of authenticity. It may be why watching Mason’s growing up reminded me of my own life: not because my boyhood was in any way similar but precisely because I had so little in common with him but still came away thinking that we all get older and experience the passing of time in similar ways.
*. But there’s a downside to the blandness as well. I started off by saying that Linklater is a pop artist, which means he wants to be liked. His movies may be experimental, but they’re not offensive or controversial in any way. The same applies here. About the only real heel we meet is the alcoholic and abusive professor. Everybody else is just so darn . . . likeable.
*. Even the more obviously satirical figures are never mocked. We don’t have the sense that Linklater is making fun of the country grandparents who give Mason a red-letter bible and a shotgun for his fifteenth birthday, or the restaurant manager who holds out the opportunity of a promotion to fry cook. These are decent people who genuinely want to help Mason. Hell, the manager even gets invited to his graduation party. I thought that was really weird.
*. If the emphasis is on low-key geniality, this doesn’t leave much for the cast to do. As noted, Coltrane is as close to a blank slate as he could be. Hawke got a lot of praise for his role, but he doesn’t seem to be doing anything very difficult to me. The part doesn’t call for much. I think Arquette’s mom is the only role with any emotional range and that stands out performance-wise. I missed her not having some scenes alone, though this wouldn’t have fit with the film’s design.

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*. I don’t want to belittle Boyhood by calling it a pop movie. I found the experience of watching it to be very moving, if never profound. Should it be profound? Again, the fact that people can’t articulate complex thoughts or feelings is a badge of authenticity. At the same time, it seems to me to reflect Linklater’s scratching at the limits of his art.
*. When Mason asks his dad about the meaning of life, the universe and everything he gets this: “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.” Is that lame? Hell yes. But what more could you expect from Hawke’s character?
*. Then there’s the ending. It seems to me that the scene between Mason and Nicole, coming where it does, has to carry some extra weight. But we get the same limp stoner/slacker philosophy that Linklater has made his signature. Nicole: “You know how everyone’s always saying seize the moment? I don’t know, I’m kinda thinking it’s the other way around. You know, like the moment seizes us.” Mason: Yeah. Yeah, I know. It’s constant — the moment. It’s just . . . It’s like it’s always right now, you know?” And that’s it.
*. This all takes me back to Arquette’s complaint that she thought there would be more. And it reminds me of how Linklater originally wanted to end Slacker with Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?” Given that this is, or at least seems to be, his take on life, is it fair to complain that he doesn’t give us anything more? That the film simply runs out of time with such a flabby line as the moment seizing us? I don’t know. I suspect, however, that Boyhood may not last, or if it does it will only be as a great pop song of its time.

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