By Grant Stevens
I went to ‘Boyhood’ excited. I’m a sucker for coming of age stories and material that competently tugs at my heartstrings. And ‘Boyhood’ promised to offer it all! What’s more, it was allegedly breaking cinematic ground by filming the events over a 12-year period. The result was shockingly indulgent and completely lacking in any real substance.
Nostalgia is a formidable tool. It captures audience empathy by blurring the distinction between imaginary circumstances and real life experience so the filmmaker can deliver a powerful punch. With ‘Boyhood’ there is no punch. There’s no perspective: it’s nostalgia for the sake of nostalgia. It crams in every conceivable childhood moment in rapid succession with the subtlety of a jackhammer pounding through a line of railroad stakes. There’s the time you were fighting with your sister in the back seat and your mother conned you into playing “the silent game.” There’s the camping trip with Dad when you affectionately pushed him into the lake. The family in a circle on the patio strumming a guitar. The time your Dad forced you to listen to all his favorite childhood radio hits. The triumphant graduation party when your family and friends toasted your success.
Unfortunately, the execution of these moments is ridiculously cliché and totally artificial. They are filled with predictable dialogue and one-dimensional cartoon characters, Ethan Hawke being the perfect example. There is no ambiguity with his character. From the beginning it’s clear that he might be a bit of a deadbeat, but he’s the lovable absentee father who is going to berate you with contrived words of wisdom in every scene, whether it’s the talk about condoms, the talk about girls or the talk about sports. Patricia Arquette isn’t really an exception, either. Sure, sometimes she breaks down and cries, but otherwise she’s unambiguously playing the role of the independent and responsible single mother. Like the rest of the characters, there’s no texture in the role or subtlety in the performance.
There are tough times in ‘Boyhood’ though. The mother finds herself in a series of abusive alcoholic relationships. And while this is undoubtedly a serious concern, it’s presented with the same lack of finesse as everything else in the film. There is no room for interpretation with these boyfriends: Each actor is playing abusive alcoholic. There’s never a question of the direction they are heading and the events unfold in a manner more fitting of a Lifetime movie than a nuanced, realistic portrayal. Furthermore, there’s no discussion on how these events influence our protagonists. Sure, Mom is crying in one scene and forced to relocate to a friend’s house, but then the movie jumps forward a couple of years to when all their problems are miraculously solved and she is suddenly a highly successful college teacher cracking jokes to her adoring students and inviting them over for dinner!
The children seem entirely unmoved by these events. Aside from an unfortunate haircut, Mason doesn’t seem to be affected by this abuse at all. He cruises from one cliché childhood moment to the next until he suddenly becomes another bloated caricature. Every scene is so obviously aimed at establishing him as the smooth-talking, sensitive artist with painfully self-satisfied insights into the world. He reads Kurt Vonnegut instead of the Twilight novels. He’s eager to explore the Austin music scene. He does “urban art” but can laugh at the ironies behind such a label. He’s a virtuoso photographer. He paints his nails black and wears an earring. Every dramatic affectation and vocal intonation exudes this over-the-top sensitivity. We get it! You’re a misunderstood artistic type!
I think by year 10, Mr. Linklater became concerned with the lack of substance and cohesion in his wealth of footage, because all of a sudden the movie desperately grasps for some kind of cultural relevancy. Through the smugly precocious teenage Mason, he adds generic sound bytes of trendy Millennial conversation, such as concerns over social media, technology and suburban homogeneity. These themes aren’t incorporated into the narrative or influencing the growth of the characters, they’re just sort of dropped in: repeating what other more skillful artists have expressed and hoping the audience will confuse this with contributing to the conversation.
At the very end, Mr. Linklater throws in a flimsy thesis to the movie you’ve just witnessed: Our lives are “a series of milestones.” In case you miss the point, he hammers it over your head one last time: “You know how everyone’s always saying ‘seize the moment’? I don’t know, I’m kind of thinking it’s the other way around, you know, like the moment seizes us.” Even if his movie manages to illustrate this series, however artificially, he’s still missing the most important part: That these moments drive our evolution into adulthood and powerfully inform our perspective of the world. The ultimate irony is that ‘Boyhood’ spends a record breaking twelve years trying to capture real life and ends up being as superficial as a Hallmark card.
To echo the unanimous praise of every major review: ‘Boyhood’ is magic and Richard Linklater is a magician. He’s managed to conjure up cliché dialogue and cartoon characters, present them with one cheap 12-year trick and not only fool the community into thinking his movie is remotely good, but that it’s worthy of our highest accolades.