2014 Academy Awards, 87th Annual Academy Awards, absentee father, abusive relationships, Andrew Villarreal, Barbara Chisholm, Best Director nominee, Best Film Editing nominee, Best Original Screenplay nominee, Best Picture nominee, Best Supporting Actor nominee, Best Supporting Actress winner, Boyhood, Brad Hawkins, brother-sister relationships, Cambell Westmoreland, Cassidy Johnson, Charlie Sexton, cinema, coming of age, divorced parents, dramas, dysfunctional family, Elijah Smith, Ellar Coltrane, Ethan Hawke, father-son relationships, film reviews, films, Jamie Howard, Jenni Tooley, Jessi Mechler, Libby Villari, Lorelei Linklater, Marco Perella, mother-son relationships, Movies, multiple award nominee, Patricia Arquette, relationship, Richard Linklater, single mother, Sinjin Venegas, Steven Prince, Tom McTigue, Zoe Graham
From the outside, indie film wunderkind Richard Linklater’s Boyhood (2014) seems like a pretty impossible endeavor: filmed over the course of 12 years with the same cast, the film purports to follow young Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from his childhood all the way to his 18th birthday, as he leaves for college. Along the way, we get to witness Mason (and his family) growing up before our very eyes, the passage of time marked by such, real-world indicators as growing taller, sprouting facial hair or any of the endless ways in which children become adults. It’s an impressive bit of filmcraft, no two ways about it, the kind of thing that would, no doubt, earn an appreciative thumbs-up from an experimental filmmaker like Terrence Malick. While the final result ends up being no different from a thousand other coming of age tales, it does nothing to take away from Linklater’s achievement: as the press states, there really hasn’t been another film like this and it’s doubtful there will be another quite like it in the future.
Structured in a loosely chronological manner, albeit one devoid of any easy time demarcations (there are no “Two years later” notes, time/date indicators or anything so obvious, although the use of pop music and culture helps to ground the film’s time-frame in a thoroughly organic manner), we follow young Mason, his slightly older sister, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), his single mother, Liv (Patricia Arquette) and his absentee father, Mason Senior (Ethan Hawke), as they all go about the process of living their lives. Samantha begins as a shrill, obnoxious kid and grows into a smart, droll and laid-back young woman. We watch Liv’s journey as she progresses from divorced, single mother to new college student and, later, college professor: along the way, she bounces from one bad, abusive relationship to the next, first with her alcoholic professor/husband, Bill (Marco Perella), later with a damaged, former soldier (Brad Hawkins). We see how Mason Senior moves from an aimless, perpetually restless, politically-active roustabout to a centered, responsible fellow with a new family and a desire to get it all right, at least the second time around.
The majority of our focus, of course, is reserved for the film’s subject, young Mason. We follow him through all the vagaries of childhood: first love, schoolyard bullies, family problems, sibling rivalries, making (and losing) friends, developing his own interests and viewpoints (albeit with more than a little influence from his father’s fiery rhetoric) and, finally, leaving the nest to strike out into the world and make his own mark. Through it all, Coltrane proves to be a more than capable actor, as comfortable with the film’s bigger emotional beats (the abusive home situation) as he is with the subtler ones (the scene where he hangs out in an abandoned house with older boys and talks about girls, for one). It’s to Coltrane’s great credit that the young performer always feels authentic: there’s an inherent danger with child actors that they’ll come across as stiff or unrealistic but that’s never a problem here.
To be honest, aside from the over-familiarity of the film, there’s very little to complain about here. The acting is uniformly solid, even if none of the performances really distinguish themselves from the others: while Arquette won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance here, all of the acting is similarly realistic…there were no real standouts, at least from my perspective. The film looks great, with some nice, vibrant colors and the sound design is quite exceptional: the film is very music-oriented (as is much of Linklater’s output) and the use of pop music to establish the time-frame is nicely realized.
Personally, I’ve never been the biggest Linklater fan: I’ve always found Slacker (1991) to be thoroughly underwhelming and Dazed and Confused (1993) has always placed well behind Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) in my personal playbook. To be honest, my favorite Linklater film is actually Bernie (2011), which is probably the least representative film in his canon. My major issue has always been that his films seem more content to keep up a constant verbal barrage than to actually mean anything: it’s always come across as a ridiculously pompous combination of Kevin Smith and John Cassavetes, at least to my non-discerning ears. While Boyhood is less guilty of this than past films, there’s still plenty of wheel-spinning, especially once we get to Mason’s numerous “philosophical” discussions with girlfriend Sheena (Zoe Graham).
Ultimately, I enjoyed Boyhood, although I certainly wouldn’t rank it as one of the best films of 2014: minus the “twelve years” gimmick, there really wasn’t anything here that I hadn’t seen before, certainly no great “insights” into growing up. In many ways, this was very much a basic coming-of-age film with a slightly glossier top-coat. I was also rather unhappy that Arquette’s character, essentially, was summed up by her various bad relationship choices: it seems slightly mean-spirited that the film allows her to progress from single mother to student to college professor, only for her to keep making the exact same relationship mistakes at each and every turn. It’s almost as if the film is saying that no matter how much Liv progresses, learns or grows, she’s still just a woman who needs a guy in order to feel complete…and can’t even pick a “good” one, to boot. Her final breakdown seems even more reductive, in this light, as if her entire life is defined by others, whether husbands, boyfriends or her own kids.
There’s a lot to like here, without a doubt: very rarely has a family/relationship drama felt this realistic and the actors all have tremendous chemistry together. At the end of the day, however, Boyhood is not appreciably better (or more insightful) than any number of similar films: at the end of the day, I have to wonder…was it worth the twelve years?