Boyhood is a film that thrives on personal reaction. Its attention to detail in cataloguing the last decade sent eerie shivers up my spine. Mason (Ellar Coltrane) dressing up as Harry Potter for the midnight release of The Half Blood Prince blew me right back into my baby-years. The film begins just after his parents’ divorce, and follows Mason and his family through a variety of friends, schools, stepfathers, and seminal moments for twelve years. However, despite how it may seem on the surface, I don’t believe that this film really is the ‘coming-of-age’ epic as it has been described. If anything, it is a journey through arrested emotional development and trauma, while dealing with never having quite enough. Detailed, sweeping, and hypnotizing, Boyhood connects across the emotional spectrum, and though it occasionally loses focus, it never becomes boring. In a project whose scope seems unwieldy, Linklater manages to pull off his usual filmmaking magic, sculpting and nudging reality into narrative form.
If there’s one thing you’ve heard about the film, it’s the remarkable production decision to follow, in pretty close to real time, the growth of an entire family over twelve years. This is not an entirely groundbreaking conceit (See the Up Series, having recently released 56 Up in 2012.), though it is remarkably well executed in Boyhood for the first time in fictional narrative. Linklater catches many cultural motifs early on within the film’s production, such as the loss of face-to-face communication between friends, which he hits home with Mason’s long-winded rejection of Facebook. I’d be interested to hear how they adjusted the story and characters throughout the production period to suit the film’s vision. When I first heard about the premise, I was struck by the glaring potential for actors to fail to grow into their roles. It’s true that many of the ensemble performances feel amateurish, but in a way, that lends a touch of realism to an already well-realised collection of characters.
The standout performances come from Ethan Hawke as Mason Sr., Mason’s loving but immature father, and Patricia Arquette as Olivia, Mason’s long-suffering and utterly devoted mother. Hawke’s transition from fun but absent father to tie-toting family man was remarkable, and his maturing clearly illustrates an arc that nicely foils Mason’s freedom-seeking adolescence. Having given incredibly nuanced performances in the Before Trilogy (which he doesn’t quite top here), Hawke adds a layer of true star-quality depth to an otherwise believable but oddly lacklustre cast. Arquette’s performance was, by far, the most striking in the film, and I was honestly more impressed by her depiction of aging than Mason’s growth into adulthood. She so honestly captures the desperation of a mother doing everything she can to provide for her children, finally resulting in a profoundly deflated and unfulfilling emotional climax when sending Mason off to college. ‘I just thought there would be more,’ she sobs.
It’s difficult to narrow the film’s purpose to a single controlling idea, as the theme seems to grow and shift along with the characters, giving subtle nuance to what could easily have been another textbook bildungsroman. Eventually, it settles on a vaguely optimistic but ultimately bleak outlook on growing up. My problem with the film, which the film itself seems to conclude with, is that there isn’t quite enough. This is not a story of self-discovery or growth. It’s a story of maintenance, of flat-lining, of teetering on the edge of failure. Regardless, there are moments of true, sparkling optimism that lighten Mason’s otherwise bleary and somewhat grating youth. Mason’s stepfathers suffer from alcoholism, and Mason continually becomes a target for their self-hatred fuelled abuse. In one sequence near the end of the film, Mason Sr. offers him a beer, to which Mason replies that he’d rather just have a water. His father explains that it’s fine, but Mason firmly replies that ‘He’s good’. In that one line, Mason acknowledges the damage he’s seen alcohol do to his family, and takes a small, but significant, step in bettering himself from the experiences of those around him.
Nevertheless, for a film that takes place over twelve years, I was surprised by how little things actually progress. Keeping in line with the realism of the film, many of the set-ups in the first half of the film are never fully paid off. In most cases, this would appear as unrealised potential, but Boyhood intentionally lets some set-ups lie in order to underscore the sense of disconnect and missed opportunity that characterises most of the film. As the family moves house for the first time, one of Mason’s friends waves faintly as they leave, and there is never much hope of a reconnection. ‘I just thought there would be more’.
There is a moment in Ellar Coltrane’s performance where it finally all clicks. The pep-talks, scolding, late nights, and other seemingly insignificant moments all come together to collectively contribute to his maturity. That said, I didn’t experience the same inspiration or awe that I’ve felt while watching other films with that motif (Toy Story 3, anyone?). It wasn’t quite a coming of age movie, or even a transition from boyhood to manhood. In fact, I’m not sure Mason ever really does mature—I think the film plays very well to the sense of extended adolescence that is often attributed to the generation (my generation) on which the film focuses. I reject the ‘let’s fuck about and it’ll all work itself out’ paradigm pretty fundamentally, and don’t think the film does a powerful or thoughtful enough job of drawing out the profoundly moving ideal of ‘insignificant but important’ that Linklater did so well in Before Midnight. In fact, most of the film seems to be more along the lines of ‘insignificant, unimportant, and unchanging’.
This film isn’t a celebration of youth, but a critique of a childish adults. None of the adults in the film feel like adults. They seem like bigger children, unable to cope with what life has to offer but doing the best they can. This makes Boyhood an incredibly honest, but ultimately unsatisfying film. There’s no doubt in my mind that Boyhood is a remarkable film and absolutely worth seeing. I just thought there would be more.