In the literary world, fictional stories written on paper and ink (or nowadays, in digital form) are often called novels. People sometimes exclaim “Well, that was novel” at something that’s innovative and seemingly new or untried, and in the film world there’s very little that’s novel that plays at a local cineplex. If you’re an avid movie-watcher, you’re aware of the many tricks filmmakers use to further a story, create conflict, or resolve the narrative. When filmmakers use these tricks too much, we often complain that the film was formulaic or predictable. And if there’s something that many people crave are stories that don’t fall into the trap of predictability — though, truth be told, predictability does sells tickets. When films get too off the beaten path of the tried and true formulas, they often get categorized as “art films” or “independent releases.” That’s a code word that a movie has a very limited appeal — usually relegated to an audience of gray hairs, intellectuals, or hipsters.
Filmmaker Richard Linklater has been making independent films since the early 1990s, and his movies certainly have a niche audience. From Slacker, to Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight, and A Scanner Darkly, Linklater has produced films featuring a lot of walking and talking — while keeping the action to a minimum. Now, he’s certainly taken jobs that have been commercially successful (i.e., School of Rock and Dazed and Confused), but those films seem to be made so he could continue to pursue movies that he’s more passionate about.
Which brings me to Boyhood — a film that took 12 years to make. Now if there were ever a film that I would call novel, it would be Boyhood. The story can be broken down to its most elemental arc — as IMDB does: “The life of a young man, Mason, from age 5 to age 18.” On the surface, that’s what the movie is about, but one certainly knows that a life is much more complex than that. And so it goes with Mason (played by Ellar Coltrane), who lives with his mother (Patricia Arquette) and sister in a small Texas suburb. Mason seems like a satisfied kid. He plays with his friends, has a curious mind about the way the world works, gets annoyed by his older sister (Lorelei Linklater), but knows that life is complicated by the fact that his parents are divorced. Conflict usually drives plots, and there are many points where Linklater does just that. From the desire of Arquette to better herself and make more money, to the mother’s second marriage to a professor who grows more alcoholic and violent has the years progress, to yet another marriage to an Army Vet who also becomes a verbally abusive alcoholic, we see turning points that keep the story moving along. All the while, the dad (Ethan Hawke) is an “every other weekend and some holidays” father who tries to be part of his children’s lives.
To me, the film’s title is a bit of a misnomer because for three-quarters of the movie, the story is about the family, but mostly centering on Mason and his sister, Samantha. The focus of the film changes in the last act of the movie as Mason’s teen years become the central thrust. One wonders how all the changes in Mason’s life affected him as a teen and young adult. Mason is, as I wrote earlier, a curious (and sensitive) kid who looks at the world as an artist might. As he grows older, photography becomes an outlet where he can express himself. His view of the world seems to filter through certain barriers as exemplified in some of the pictures he takes. For example, at a football game, one of the photos we see is that of a net in focus with the football players sitting on a bench out of focus. It’s certainly an artsy-fartsy shot, but it also shows how he doesn’t completely fit in to the mainstream. He gets bullied a bit in the film, but he has a lot of friends, too. So, there’s a sense that he’s an okay kid whose friends know he’s different but accept him anyway. And Mason seems to accept the world as it is. He floats into and out of families (with his mother and father’s marriages), but seems to be okay with each situation — except when is came to his second alcoholic step-father.
Boyhood is one of those movies where the details are much more substantive than the narrative arc. Because it’s about the life of this boy, there are moments in his life that shape who he becomes as a young man. And because Linklater took 12 years to make this movie with the actors contributing to the writing of the dialogue, there’s a real sense of authenticity to the film — well, for the most part. Some of the weirdness of Austin, Texas seem a little too contrived, but those minor distractions can be forgiven for what how he departs from standard film story cues. For example, in most films when you see characters driving, and the driver gets handed something like a picture or they take their eyes off the road for far too long, we’ve come to expect that a car accident is going to happen. Linklater set up camera angles where it seemed like such a thing could happen, but didn’t. Ethan Hawke’s character of the “cool dad” is often a mask for being a jerk with ulterior motives in many films, but Hawke’s character remains a supportive, enthusiastic, and a generally positive influence in the children’s lives throughout the film. However, while Linklater often thwarts the expectations of the audience, he also leaves them asking “what happened” to certain characters. Case in point: Arquette’s marriage to her second husband show both his descent into booze fueled rage over the course of years, but also highlighted how Mason and his step brother and sister were close. When Arquette left the husband after a few too many beatings, we were never told what became of the kids. Since the story takes place in this day and age, it seems odd that the kids wouldn’t stay in touch with their former step siblings through Facebook, text, or Instagram. That part of the story was a major turning point, so it seemed odd that those relationships just kind of ended.
Overall, though, Boyhood is a wonderful movie. At 165 minutes, the film certainly takes its time in detailing the lives of these people. And while the ending has a kind of ambiguity, it’s okay because there’s a sense that Mason, after feeling so disconnected from the world, has finally found where he belongs.
Note: Obviously, this is my take on the film. However, Julie has done her own review in a “He Blogs/She Blogs” kind of thing. Read her post here.