thornhill is supposed to love "Boyhood", the new film from director Richard Linklater, filmed over the last twelve years with Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke and newcomer Ellar Coltrane as the members of a family living in Texas. It is the type of independently made film I should love. I should’ve loved it. Heck, if anyone should love it, it would be me. But I didn’t.
Linklater set out to film a chronicle of a young boy’s life living with divorced parents over twelve years of the boy’s life. Every year, Linklater and the cast and crew got together to film for a few days.
The finished film follows Mason (Coltrane) as he grows up and deals with a Dad (Hawke) who isn’t fully invested or involved in his life and a Mom (Arquette) who is trying to make their family’s life better, but has a tendency to fall for and marry alcoholics. His sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter) is a few years older. If your parents are divorced and/or you grew up with someone who was an alcoholic, these moments will ring true and seem authentic. But a lot of the praise seems to come from the fact the project was “Twelve Years In The Making”. This makes the film an experiment, not a narrative. The experiment is good, but the narrative is not groundbreaking or new enough to match or equal the "Twelve Years In The Making!", as all publicity for the film proudly proclaims.
With each year, Coltrane grows a little, his appearance changes and we pick up his life and watch what he is experiencing at this time. Coltrane has been doing a lot of publicity to promote this film and I have heard him asked a few times already how the narrative of the film mirrors his real- life. Apparently, his parents were also divorced. But does this make “Boyhood” more interesting? I would guess due to the nature of the production, filmming a different segment, every year for twelve years, the script by Linklater changed over the course of time. This, and the acting ability of most of the cast, gives the film a largely improvised feel and the acting seems more natural, but in a way that makes you think of real people as subjects of a documentary. When you begin to feel that you might be watching a documentary, Patricia Arquette or Ethan Hawke make an appearance as Mom or Dad and the fictional nature of the film comes roaring back to you. Coltrane's real-life story doesn't and shouldn't really affect our experience of watching the film, which makes these various mentions seem more like a publicity ploy to make the story more watchable.
In “Boyhood”, there are too many elements working at odds with one another to create a harmonious film.
Patricia Arquette does a good job of portraying Mom. There are little hints throughout to her motivation. For instance, after she goes back to school, she marries a professor and brings her children to live with him and his two kids. Mason and Samantha become friends with their new siblings and everything seems to go well. When a problem surfaces, you can see the wheels turning and then she sides with her husband; she doesn’t want to uproot her family again and likes where their life is at the moment. Arquette’s character goes through the most emotions throughout the story and the actress does a very good job of making this journey seem authentic.
Ethan Hawke, a longtime Linklater collaborator (they made the “Before” films together), plays Dad. He doesn’t seem as authentic as Arquette, but he does a good job of portraying a pretty typical divorced dad. At one point, he brings the kids over to his apartment for the weekend. His roommate is sprawled on the couch with all manner of garbage and smoking paraphernalia on the coffee table. I know from experience that this type of thing can happen, so it rings true. And Hawke’s portrayal of Dad makes him desperate to be a friend to both of his kids, preferring to leave the discipline to Mom, who is there all the time. Again, rings very true. But Hawke’s character doesn’t have the emotional heft of Arquette’s because Dad isn’t there all the time. A late-in-the-movie event provides a change for Dad and Hawke begins to temper the performance a bit.
Ellar Coltrane plays Mason, the young boy who grows up before our eyes. He is good, but it is easy to see he is not a trained actor. Strangely, this seems to work better in the earlier years of this project. As a six-year-old, Ellar’s protrayal seems entirely natural because he is completely uninhibited. He is simply being the kid he probably is. As he grows older, as his experiences change, he seems to become a little more aware of his acting, due to his exposure to other film projects, he was in Linklater's "Fast Food Nation". As the film nears the end, he seems to shift again and goes again for the natural feel. Or is he just a disinterested teenager?
Loralei Linklater’s portrayal of Samantha is almost the mirror image of Coltrane’s. It starts out great, becomes a bit more ‘theatrical’ and becomes naturalistic again as she becomes an indifferent young adult.
There are some scenes of great power, and this is what the film gets right. Mom's abusive husband causes a lot of drama. When Dad meets a new woman, his life changes in ways he never expected they might and he seems to have some trouble adjusting. But given the nature of the film, and the fact we are getting brief snippets of these people's lives, too much of what is depicted seems too mundane and 'everyday', causing you to wonder why you are watching the film in the first place. A documentary depicting 'everyday' can be compelling, fictional narrative not so much.
Linklater wants this experiment to be a chronicle of one boy’s life. But the kid playing the boy is an actor. He is not the subject of the film. I think the filmmakers even realize the problem with this and have been pushing the similarities between Coltrane’s youth and Mason’s life, to make it seem more viable as a ‘chronicle’ and less an ‘experiment’
Linklater deserves a lot of credit for taking on such a unique project. The idea of filming a project over twelve years would prove too daunting for most. Somehow, he managed to get everyone involved to commit to this and they got together for a few weeks every year to shoot some footage. As mentioned before, I suspect he changed the script for individual segments as they worked through the years. There are a lot of moving parts involved in any film, but when you modify the production as he did, these parts become more difficult to control.
But because the script seems to have been changed along the way, it is also difficult to ensure there is a message or outcome you are working toward. The final moments of the film seem more like something people would shoot with their iPhone and post on Facebook rather than a conclusion to an ‘epic’ journey.
“Boyhood” is worth checking out, but I think people are in awe of the logistics of making this film and this has clouded their judgement regarding the actual movie.