As we get older we tend to think back to our youthful summers as endless. Once you get out of school the days run into each other. Sports are played all day, movies are watched (for this critic anyway) and then suddenly the opposite sex is discovered. In that moment of reflection, our recollections lie to us. We are our own unreliable narrator. In reality our lives were never simple, the days were not endless and we were not really the centre of the world. The reason for the nostalgia can be quite simple; there is something warm and innocent about childhood. So we forget the tears, the frustrations, the troubles and imagine our childhoods to be how we wish they were: long, sun dappled, idyllic and full of possibility. Boyhood strives to make childhood feel that way. It aches with nostalgia, hope and naivety. It does not completely shy away from the troubles. Indeed Boyhood aims to be one of those films that is about ‘nothing’ and yet is about everything.
The story is simplicity itself, hiding a technical complexity. Boyhood tells the story of one Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) and his journey from being a small kid in Texas right up to the day he enters college. The description is deceptively simple and makes it a lot easier for us critics who hate an exposition-heavy first paragraph. Yes, Boyhood aims to be one of those indisputably classic stories of Americana. A search for individual destiny, the teenage years, girls and divorced parents all cast shadows on the horizon.There is also another reason to be confident going in. The film is written and directed by one of America’s finest filmmakers, Richard Linklater, and was actually filmed each summer over a 12-year period with the same cast. Make no mistake about it; this is an ambitious attempt to capture some filmic magic that we can all share in.
We begin at the first sign of magic in the air. We see Mason Jr. for the first time lying on the grass and looking up at the sky, perhaps subconsciously thinking about where he fits in this world. This starting point invokes comparisons to The Tree of Life,which explored this question: how important is the life of one person in relation to the universe? That question is important here, as Mason Jr.is the centre of this film and we spend the next twelve years watching him grow. And like every person growing up, we are the stars of our own film. Everything we do is important to us. Linklater portrays the narcissism inherent in this in a rather broad way, but it is there. But Mason Jr. is a good kid. Indeed, a couple more ‘I didn’t ask to be born’ moments of anger may have added some much needed tension. Whilst Mason gets up to the usual teenage shenanigans, there is no real worry that he will get into serious trouble. All of this is fine. But the vital question is can the film knit this all together thematically, to marry the narrative to some overall meaning? Sadly, Boyhood does not.
The ambition and scope of Boyhood seems to be blinding critics to the fact that the story has been done to death. It has a great big hoary cliché of a script. We have seen this film before, many times. Young kid grows up in a family with marriage troubles, with social and political upheaval in the background: it’s The Wonder Years. Perpetually sunny days just being a teenager and hanging out? Take your pick: The Tree of Life, Stand by Me, a million other films.
If it is to be argued that the brilliance of Boyhood is in the technical achievement (12 years of filming and editing the same cast to see them all age and grow up before your eyes) remember this this: Linklater has already done similar to this and better. It is called the Before trilogy. Watching that couple go from being young and naïve, to more realistic and needful and eventually ending up sad, bitter and even slightly hopeful trumps anything in this film. The Before films are lean and truthful where Boyhood is long, flabby and generic. Linklater does not even trust the audience enough to let us figure out when time has moved on, bombarding us with time specific technology and politics so we know that everyone is a couple of years older. This is supposed to offer us a profound insight into how states were swayed for Obama and how all technology got smaller. It really doesn’t. It is crowbarred in with no subtlety or real skill whatsoever.
And yet there are some riveting moments here. Small scenes of Mason Jr. camping with his dad are beautifully played and understated. There are some great family moments in general, with the film at its best showing how easily marriages (first and second) can fall apart and how that devastates relationships within it. There are also uniformly great performances by a pitch perfect cast. Hawke as Mason Sr. adds layers and shading to what is essentially a one-dimensional man-child role. It is great to see Patricia Arquette back in a leading role; she is the beating heart of this film. It is just a pity that her arc is so dreadfully put together. She transcends the blandly written material (Not one, but two drunken husbands!) to give a performance of real emotion. Both kids are excellent with Ellar Coltrane the rightful star of the show. But a lot of credit must surely go to the director’s own daughter Lorelei Linklater, who plays Mason Jr.’s older sister Samantha. She matches him all the way as we see her grow alongside him. In reality the film should be called Childhood, such is her presence. Watch how great she is in a scene where Mason Sr. wants to talk to his kids about the birds and the bees.
Boyhood is a film that desperately wants to be seen as a modern American classic, and no doubt many will see it that way. That is perhaps the problem. It tries too hard to be epic in sweep without really bringing anything new or particularly interesting to the table. It certainly has a lot of the tools to get there, but they are used clumsily and without precision. If only the story had risen above token surface level cliché we may well have had something approaching a classic. Instead what we have is this: a fine, well-told story that is too long and doesn’t say nearly enough to justify its length or scope. This is a missed opportunity.