A Stop in your Boyhood

Boyhood poster - medium

Even after seeing the film three times, I haven’t fully figured out why it has maintained such a hold on me, and why I’m eager to see it again.

Manohla Dargis for the Times

So this is why I write a blog.  Under no circumstances would I want to see this movie a second time, much less a third or fourth.  That a chief movie critic for the New York Times, the primary news source for the entire globe, needs to see the movie three times seriously puts at question her credibility as a film critic, and in turn the Times’ credibility.  Yes, she writes well.  But this is not some art house film with oblique meanings that one must read between the lines to figure out.  It is utterly straightforward, and I applaud it for that.

Boyhood - text block 1

So don’t get me wrong: Boyhood is a lovely film.  It does something completely unique in the history of film: present a 12-year span in the lives of several characters, filmed as it were in real-time over a period of 12 years.  As such, no makeup or prosthetics or special effects are needed to show the players aging.  The effects of time on the actors, and hence the characters, is by design genuine in a way unparalleled in any other movie ever made.

The 12-year production combines with a very, almost too believable slice-of-life script to yield a film of quiet, steadily building power.  It’s undeniably effective.  But the plot could have been punched up just a bit — other than a couple less-than-ideal husbands of the mother Olivia, played by Patricia Arquette, there are no particularly upsetting events or circumstances in the lives of these characters.  The boy, Mason, his Boyhood movie still - Ethan Hawkesister, Samantha, and the divorced father, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke), are all basically good and well-adjusted folks.  This works in the film’s favor, in the sense that it becomes easier to care about these people.  But it also works against it by watering down a nearly 3-hour long film by denying it any great dramatic turns.

Another way to put it: this movie has been hailed as an “epic.”  But epic is not about length, it’s about the scope of the story.  You’d have to have a very loose idea of “epic” to apply the term here.  Throwing “epic” and “masterpiece” at a movie like Boyhood is the type of bluster I seek to dispel.

But as I said, there is a quiet power about this movie, and it was very satisfying in this way.  I was engaged for the entire length — no easy task for such a long film.  But I’m not sure that a couple years from now this movie will stick with me.  My enjoyment will likely end up being as transient a phenomenon as the passing days depicted in the film.

Boyhood - text block 2

I do give a lot of credit to the filmmaker Richard Linklater and the actors involved — this was something of a risky project.  What if somewhere along the line one of the principal actors were not able to film that year, or worse yet, decided to opt out of the project entirely?  Unless every scene had been shot with substitute actors, you’d be out of luck.  Also, the younger actors might not like the idea that they would have to wait so long to receive public recognition for their work — hard to advance a career that way.

* * *

Boyhood is a little like NBC’s Parenthood, if it went on for 12 years, each season presented in 15-minute segments strung together.  And that gets to the heart of what I didn’t like about it.  If you remove the 12-year shot from Boyhood, you would be left with something too soap-opera like, too commonplace, too so-what.  Too melodramatic where a higher-caliber production would deliver that subtle, nuanced, pitch-pefect balance of drama.  The entire idea of this film rests on it being shot over a period of 12 years.  Not a gimmick exactly, but sort of.  Let’s say a strategy, then, without which one’s left with little more than dust in the wind.

When I heard about this movie, I looked up the director Linklater and saw that he was responsible for the mostly awful Dazed and Confused (1993), but since had made the Before Sunrise series and 2012’s excellent Bernie.  With Boyhood, he’s found a novel way to deliver another compelling picture.  I think that parents, especially of older children, may find great value in this movie.  For me, I liked it very much but think it’s overrated.  7/10

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