In case you haven't heard, Boyhood is an almost universally beloved movie by Richard Linklater, starring Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke, about a boy named Mason, who does various things such as growing incrementally older over the course of 12 years. How did Linklater and his cast achieve this miraculous visual effect? They filmed the movie sporadically beginning in 2002 and wrapped in 2014 -- 12 years. Did I mention it took 12 years to film, and that it's universally beloved? Literally everyone loves it. Everyone. It's received a lengthy roster of palmarès and accolades, including the Golden Globe for Best Picture, six Academy Award nominations including Best Picture and Best Director, as well as a 98 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a 100 percent rating on Metacritic.
If you saw it, you probably loved it, too. I mean, you'd have to be crazy not to, given how all kinds of important people have already said it's excellent. I'll get into my theories as to why it's so beloved later in this review (hint: 12 years!). What's considerably more difficult to understand is why it's being so effusively regarded as "one of the most extraordinary movies of...the 21st Century so far" (The New York Times' A.O. Scott wrote that).
Frankly, since watching it, I've felt like a crazy person, because the movie I watched ranged from being mediocre to unintentionally schlocky. For some time now, I've been struggling to understand why I'm so out of the loop on this one. It's not because I don't like experimental or independent films or even Richard Linklater for that matter, who's an otherwise solid filmmaker. Cutting to the chase, I didn't like Boyhood because it wasted my time with mostly unlikable characters, trivial content, occasional bad performances, predictable events, narrative dead-ends, generally bad storytelling and a whole lot of nothing.
Before we dig into this mess, here are a few things I liked about Boyhood. Ambition is good, authenticity is good, realism is good. To hire a child actor as the lead in a project that will span 12 years of his life is a huge risk, and at any point along the way the whole thing could've exploded. What if Ellar Coltrane, who plays Mason from age six to age 18, turned out to be a terrible actor? What if something awful happened to one of the other leads? These are majors rolls of the dice, and I give Linklater credit for taking the shot and actually finishing the project. The aging of the characters also provided a level of authenticity that we don't normally see in coming-of-age stories, which are often hobbled by bad latex makeup or several actors playing one character. Along the way, I appreciate that the screenplay contained real-life moments to heighten the authenticity of the aging. And if anyone deserves attention for Boyhood, it's Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke who each turned in the best performances of the movie.
Too bad Arquette, Hawke and the ambitious production timeline were squandered on this lazy-disguised-as-profound story. The short list of positive elements in Boyhood might otherwise have elevated its status to being just an average film with a noteworthy making-of, yet somehow the noteworthy production timeline has rocket-boostered the movie to legendary status in spite of all the problems -- problems that would've sunk any other project but which appear to be irrelevant in this case.
I get the idea. Boyhood was intended to take us through an average boy's formative years and show us things that we don't normally see in similar movies. It's what happens between the moments. Sounds good on paper, but whether it's literature, television or film, the basic elements of storytelling need to exist in order to carry us through. Showing various and random vignettes of a kid's life is fine as long as those vignettes inform the narrative rather than simply take up time. A strong narrative thread is, for lack of a more academic word, entertaining. There's a reason why movies are supposed to be a reflection of real life, and not literally real life. Real life is often boring and anti-climactic. We pay money, and spend time watching movies -- be they high-brow or low-brow -- to escape from our reality and experience entertainment.
To that end, great dramatic movies heighten reality in order to expose new or deeper truths and insights through challenges that are played out during a series of interwoven events. Another Oscar-winning movie with a "real" family story, Robert Redford's Ordinary People, draws us into an upper-middle class family coping with the death of a child, a suicide attempt by another child, and learning how to emotionally unpack each tragedy while re-learning to live with each other or to split further apart. Decisions have consequences, and those consequences provide entertaining footholds for the audience as we take this journey with the characters. Now imagine Ordinary People without any of the dramatic tension, no reaction to Timothy Hutton's attempted suicide, with one unrelated scene after another strung together without any real narrative progression or denouement in which the story elements are drawn together. That's how Boyhood plays out. It passes off, no pun intended, an ordinary series of disconnected events that lead nowhere and provide very few deeper truths, other than, generously speaking, an occasional chunk of Forrest Gump philosophy ("You don't need bumpers. Life doesn't give you bumpers, Lieutenant Dan." I added the Lieutenant Dan part.)
We're supposed to accept this for the sake of the film's real life theme.
There's a storytelling format for capturing real life known as "documentaries." The key ingredient that makes documentaries compelling, even ones that don't have a strong narrative thread or particularly gripping events, is this: they're actually real with real people and real events (in most cases). The justifiably acclaimed Up series of documentaries, for example, follows the lives of a group of people, captured every seven years and, like Boyhood, we watch the characters grow up and grow old, and we witness how their actual lives have changed. Unlike Boyhood, this is truly real and therefore utterly fascinating. Boyhood isn't any more real than a reenactment of a documentary, therefore the realness alone doesn't carry it. Without actual realness to latch onto, there needs to be a well-told story in its place with characters who do something more than just exist.
But fine, Boyhood attempted to show us some of the more mundane "real" moments in life, with very few curve-balls or conflicts that we've never seen before. For the sake of argument let's grant the movie some credit for giving us scenes that usually get cut out of movies. Even if we grant it that, it still failed to connect each moment in a logical or cohesive way.
To paraphrase Trey Parker, Boyhood was a series of "and thens." And then this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened -- as opposed to "this happened which led to something else which then motivated the protagonist to become this other thing." This is what's called drama. This is what nearly all great stories possess. Deleting this from the screenplay is not unlike deciding to deliberately record sound that's over-modulated, or to purposefully under-exposing the film so it's really, really hard to see. It's a massive blunder, intentional or not. Take out any one scene from Ordinary People (or Terms of Endearment, or Kramer vs. Kramer, or American Beauty, or The Godfather Part II, each of which are Oscar winning, family-centric films), and the narrative thread irreparably snaps. Take out any scene in Boyhood and the movie keeps rolling along because there really isn't a narrative. That's not a good thing, no matter how much we deceive ourselves into thinking it's artistic or profound.
Let's talk about Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, another coming-of-age story.
Malick was highly experimental with his storytelling and absolutely self-indulgent in places, but throughout his nonlinear narrative, as well as the photographic splendor and existentialism, Malick gave us a solid protagonist with clear aspirations and conflicts to resolve. Things occur that advance the protagonist through these choices and toward a greater understanding of life. Scenes pay off, and there are consequences. Where Boyhood is ordinary and tedious, The Tree of Life is profound in both its ambition and its storytelling. Even if you despised it because you thought it was overly indulgent or just too weird, as a story you have to admit that it satisfies the responsibilities of a good dramatic narrative on top of being unlike anything you've seen before. Every frame has a justifiable reason for being in The Tree of Life. Not so with Boyhood.
There's a scene in which Patricia Arquette, as Mason's mother Olivia, scolds Mason's older sister for forgetting to pick up Mason from school. That's a scene. Nothing else happens. Nothing led up to it. Nothing happens as a consequence of it. Normally, in good storytelling, a scene like this might lead to something bad or interesting happening as the result of the sister's irresponsibility, or it might offer some insight into the relationship between Mason and his older sister. But this scene simply wasted our time, failing to have a purpose or consequence. If we take this scene out of the movie, what will we miss? Nothing. Will we be able to follow the rest of the movie? Yes.
There's another similarly disposable scene when Mason is in junior high school. He's hanging out with some older teens inside a, I don't know, a house under construction? Is this Mason's house? Did they break into someone else's house? We're never provided any background on why they're in this house, or even given an establishing shot of the house's exterior. So, the boys are drinking beer and saying things like "true 'dat" while throwing a circular-saw blade into a sheet of drywall. One of the older kids, played by Nick Krause (The Descendants, TV's Parenthood), teases a smaller kid because the smaller kid refuses to have a beer. Unlike other protagonists, Mason doesn't come to the kid's defense or join in with the hectoring, and instead just sits there quietly. Another older kid grabs a wooden board and forces the smaller kid to hold it up so the older kid can break it with his fist, karate style. The smaller kid holds up the board and the older kid breaks it clean in half. And... scene. Again, nothing else happens. This doesn't lead us to the next scene or anywhere else in the movie for that matter. We learn nothing about Mason either, other than it's part of his life. None of the kids are injured with the saw blade or by punching the boards, which made me wonder why they're doing what they're doing or why I'm even watching this scene. Yet again, if I had taken a bathroom break during this scene, I wouldn't have missed a damn thing.
Most of the movie is filled with unnecessary scenes like that one. Other than to observe the aging process, we only need to watch about one-third of the movie in order to see what's moderately necessary: the beginning, a couple of sequences with Ethan Hawke, the Evil Drunken Stepdad sequence, perhaps Mason's 16th birthday and Mason leaving for college (Arquette's Oscar scene).
Great trailer. Funny how it's based upon how the movie was made, rather than the story itself. Have I mentioned the movie was shot for 12 years? It's like pitching Star Wars in 1977 with a well-edited trailer that's exclusively about blue-screens, motion-control cameras and scale model TIE-fighters.
The trailer also showed us glimpses of the precious few good shots -- shots that are scattered throughout scenes as relevant as:
--Kids playing video games
--More kids playing video games
--Mason going to a new school
--Mason cutting out a map of Texas
--Mason walking home from school
--A random weirdo awkwardly bouncing a basketball (yes, that's a scene)
--Other video games
--The kids going to a Harry Potter movie
--The kids meeting a guy who hates Obama
--Mason talking about his favorite authors
--Ethan Hawke singing a song
--A teacher telling Mason to work harder (some of the worst acting in the film)
Don't ask me what happens as the result of those scenes, because the answer is nothing. Even Linklater himself admitted that "nothing much" happens in Boyhood.
Steve Martin's rant from Planes, Trains and Automobiles comes to mind:
You know, not everything is an anecdote. You have to discriminate. You choose things that are funny or mildly amusing or interesting. You're a miracle! Your stories have none of that. They're not even amusing accidentally! "Honey, I'd like you to meet Del Griffith, he's got some amusing anecdotes for you. Oh and here's a gun so you can blow your brains out. You'll thank me for it." [...] And by the way, you know, when you're telling these little stories? Here's a good idea: have a point. It makes it so much more interesting for the listener!
It felt like I was trapped on an airplane next to a blowhard who volunteers his childhood story for three hours, and while there's some off-the-shelf tragedy and a handful of amusing anecdotes in there, none of it has a point worthy of the time and exhaustion, mainly because it's a stranger and I'm not given any reason to like him, other than he's talking my ear off.
It's just 12 years of an ordinary kid's life, concluding with a twist on the "seize the day" cliche. I'm not making that last thing up, by the way. At the end of the movie, Mason's girlfriend tells him, "Everyone's always saying seize the moment. I don't know, I'm kind of thinking, you know, like the moment seizes us." If the structure of that trite maxim sounds familiar, you might've seen the old Ben Stiller superhero comedy Mystery Men in which "The Sphinx" character constantly recites words of wisdom, but he only just reverses the second part of the maxim. For example, "He who questions training only trains himself at asking questions;" "When you doubt your powers, you give power to your doubts;" and, "When you care what is outside, what is inside cares for you."
Yes, "one of the most extraordinary movies of...the 21st Century so far."
Believe it or not, the myriad of dead-end, disposable scenes wasn't nearly as offensive as the two painfully cliched Evil Drunken Stepdad stories.
Spoiler alert: there's nothing new or interesting here either. And Linklater shoehorns not one but two of them into movie. Early in the film, Arquette's Olivia pursues her master's degree and is creepily asked on date by one of her professors, an older man named Bill Welbrock, played by Marco Perella (A Scanner Darkly, Walker: Texas Ranger). CUT TO: Suddenly, Olivia and Bill have returned from their honeymoon in Paris. We discover that Gregarious Professor Bill is actually a raging alcoholic and an asshole, first seen drinking large Solo cups of vodka and Sprite, then graduating to single-malt. And he lapsed into all of the predictable Evil Drunken Stepdad things.
The entire Bill story is nothing more than a Lifetime movie-of-the-week in its best moments, and an old ABC After School Special during its worst. Evil Drunken Stepdad Bill yells at the stepkids; Evil Drunken Stepdad Bill gets drunk and breaks some kitchenware; Evil Drunken Stepdad Bill abuses Olivia and tells the kids she's "just being dramatic;" Evil Drunken Stepdad Bill forces stepson Mason to cut his hair short; and then Evil Drunken Stepdad Bill insists that Olivia isn't allowed to leave him. We've seen the Evil Drunken Stepdad trope played out like this over and over again in movie after movie (for better-told Evil Drunken Stepdad stories, see Sling Blade, This Boy's Life, Radio Flyer, Pan's Labyrinth, Hamlet, etc, etc).
Indeed, we're forced to see it twice in Boyhood because Olivia eventually remarries, this time to an Iraq War veteran who starts out nice and, shocker, turns into another Evil Drunken Stepdad. In one scene, teenage Mason arrives home to find Evil Drunken Stepdad #2 sitting on the front porch with a stack of empty beer cans -- a scene that was more entertaining and better performed when the Evil Drunken Stepdad was Dwight Yoakam in Sling Blade. Of course, Evil Drunken Stepdad #2 calls Mason a fag and hassles him about the usual Evil Drunken Stepdad things. And... scene.
Why do we root for characters in a movie? Because they have clear goals and challenges. They have intentions and subsequent obstacles in their lives, which they must overcome in service of satisfying those intentions. Some characters achieve it, others don't. That's drama. Riggan Thomson in Birdman seeks to become a respectable actor and shed his reputation for playing a comic-book superhero, but he has to overcome the production of a fiasco Broadway show, a nasty theater critic, his co-star and his own self-doubt personified in the voice of Birdman. Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs wants to succeed as an FBI agent, capture Buffalo Bill and to honor her father's spirit, but has to circumnavigate two serial killers and occasional sexism to get there. Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part II seeks to preserve both his actual family and his crime family and faces obstacles from without and within, then fails magnificently, and this makes his story both interesting and cinematic.
What are Mason's intentions? Who is this kid and, more importantly, why am I expected to care about his story for three hours of my life? I have no idea. See if you can explain Mason's role in the movie without mentioning "12 years" or "growing up." It's not easy, and that's not something we should applaud, even in our post-romantic, increasingly ironic society. Perhaps the real achievement of Boyhood is that Linklater was able to successfully trick his audience into applauding a movie with a pointless lead character wandering through a cringe-worthy series of scenes.
Arguably Linklater's biggest mistake was focusing on Mason as the protagonist. Actually, I should stop using that word to describe Mason because it implies the inclusion of specific pieces of the movie puzzle that aren't satisfied by Boyhood. There's a watchable movie in there somewhere about the relationship between Arquette and Hawke, and their struggles to raise a broken family. Instead we're given Mason who starts out well enough and grows up to become a typical, Millennial emo kid. Maybe that should've been the title of the movie: The Making of a Typical Millennial. I hasten to note that I'm not blaming Ellar Coltrane for all this. It'd be like blaming poor Hayden Christensen for Attack of the Clones.
But every time Mason was the focus of a scene, which was most of the movie, I was far less interested than when Arquette or Hawke stepped up. When the parents were featured in a scene, it felt like the makings of a real movie. Maybe it's because I'm roughly the same age as Hawke and Arquette, or maybe it's simply because these characters actually had intentions and obstacles. These crucial storytelling rules endowed the Dad and Mom with qualities that made them the most interesting aspects of an otherwise dull and pointless movie. Hawke and Arquette do more than grow incrementally older. They change as people and as parents. They're confronted by obstacles, and out of everyone in this movie we root for them. It's just a shame that they're hardly on screen and that they're given such stale material to work with.
Did I mention Mason has an older sister? I think I did. Yeah, she doesn't do anything in the movie except to forget to pick Mason up from school.
Speaking of bland characters, there's a sequence that made me laugh out loud in which Mason celebrates his 16th birthday at his step-grandparent's house. Throughout the movie, Ethan Hawke's Mason Senior is an outspoken anti-Iraq War, pro-Obama liberal, but then, without explanation, he marries a Christian conservative woman. Nothing leading up to it. No indication earlier that Mason Senior was open to relationships with people who oppose everything in which he believes. And then, out of nowhere -- WHOOPS! -- he married a right-winger. This is all crowbarred into the sequence about Mason's birthday. Oh, by the way, Mason Senior also sells his black GTO muscle car which, we learn, Mason Junior was supposed to inherit. Only, there wasn't a scene earlier in the movie where inheriting the car was mentioned. Mason Junior simply tells Mason Senior about that one time when he was eight-years-old and the car was promised to him. I assume that this earlier scene was left out of the movie because it actually would've paid off later and we can't have set-ups and payoffs in Boyhood. Back to Mason's birthday party. It takes place at Mason Senior's wife's parent's house. Naturally the new (to us) step-grandparents are also Christian conservatives. How do we discover this? They give Mason a Bible and a rifle for his birthday. Literally: God and a gun. These are the kinds of flat, two-dimensional characters we get in this movie. The same goes for both of the Evil Drunken Stepdads.
"One of the most extraordinary movies of...the 21st Century so far." One of the most overrated, that's for sure.
Let's return to the alleged realism of the story and its relationship to documentaries. The only truly real thing about Boyhood is that the actors grow older throughout the sporadic 12 year shooting schedule -- come to think of it, a film about the actors who made the movie would be a considerably better movie. At the very least, there'd be intentions and conflicts, tension and release, plus the characters would still get older. The way in which a movie was made shouldn't be a significant factor in evaluating the quality of the movie itself. Special effects and gimmicks are fascinating to read about and watch, and they're good for ticket sales, but if the movie's story and characters don't deliver, the behind-the-scenes details shouldn't mitigate the flaws.
To be clear: the movie didn't take a full 12 years to make. It was filmed in short bursts throughout 12 years. In that time, Linklater also made School of Rock, Before Sunset, Bad News Bears, Fast Food Nation, A Scanner Darkly, Me and Orson Welles, Bernie and Before Midnight. So, let's not get too carried away. But I must confess, it's really cool to see the characters age, and Linklater does it without corny text signifying the years, so we pick up on the advancement of time by way of hairstyles and pop-culture references. No one can deny that it's fascinating to observe, and this is one reason why so many people seem to dig it -- the time-lapse effect. But in and of itself, watching actors get older isn't a movie. We watched the little fat kid on Three and a Half Men grow up for ten years, and that awful show doesn't deserve anything, especially our time or attention.
As a thought experiment, strip the "12 years" thing from the equation. Imagine it wasn't a factor in the making of the movie. Let's say Boyhood was made during a 12 month span, but still fictitiously covered 12 years, with different actors playing Mason as he grows up. Would the movie still be as widely acclaimed? I've always contended that a movie is only as good as its story, and it should hold up without any other contrivances. For example, you could probably strip away the computer animation from Brad Bird's The Incredibles and remake it using crudely drawn 2D animation and it'd still be a good movie. But if we take out the 12 year production schedule, is Boyhood still the award-nominated, universally loved movie we know now? I doubt it.
All in all, it's difficult to take seriously the unanimous praise for Boyhood when it has none of the requirements that critics and audiences almost always demand. Every other movie is praised or panned based on whether it has a well-developed story and an intriguing protagonist, but these prerequisites are suddenly irrelevant because it took them 12 years to make Boyhood -- and the characters get older on screen! -- so the usual critical standards are suddenly irrelevant.
What did Boyhood give us that we can't get by following a random teenager's Facebook timeline? A teenager who's not a friend or a relative. A total stranger. Disconnected, trivial moments.
Perhaps this is why the movie works for so many viewers in an age of social media voyeurism and narcissism -- an age when a photograph of soup is worthy of publication (I'm as guilty as anyone). This is what we love now, I suppose. It turns out Linklater may have predicted Facebook back in 2002, two years before Zuckerberg, or he may have just observed some early blogs because Boyhood is nothing but a series of routine, banal, cliched status updates from someone whom I don't care about or care to know, and I'm never offered any legitimate reasons to start caring. But we really love watching the lives of other people on blogs, social media and reality shows, and we especially love nostalgia. Boyhood has lots of nostalgia, and it does nothing with it, other than to show it, which appears to be enough for us.
That said, I wouldn't have written such a long review about a movie that wasn't as acclaimed as Boyhood. A glib, flippant review wouldn't have been fair to the movie or to the people who love (or hate) it, so I thought I'd really dig in and do it justice. Admittedly, there's a touch of selfishness about this review insofar as I needed to write it for no other reason than to test my initial reaction against what I know to be true about good filmmaking, as both someone who's on the periphery of filmmaking and as someone with a too-large collection of movies. If nothing else, the length and detail of this review is a reflection upon the impact the movie has had; positively for most, negatively for a thin minority of others. For better or worse, it's a cultural and cinematic event, but for the life of me, I have no idea why. As you can clearly ascertain, I've spent a lot of time thinking about Boyhood, and it doesn't get any better.