A little praise can be a dangerous thing. Sometimes something is built up to such an extent that one is led to an inevitable letdown. It can make something unapproachable, remote, something to admire but not something to touch you emotionally. Citizen Kane has that albatross around its neck of being called "the greatest film ever made", which makes some people consider it a vegetable of cinema (good for you but with a bad taste). Boyhood has found itself in similar circumstances: a film lauded as one of the most groundbreaking pieces of art in the history of all mankind.
The preceding sentence I should note will be the first, last, and only time I compare Citizen Kane with Boyhood. The former was not just a landmark in film, but also highly entertaining. The latter, twelve years in the making, is navel-gazing pseudo-artistic indulgence, an exercise in filmmaking whose artifice is the selling point.
Boyhood consists of brief moments in the life of Mason Evans, Jr. (Ellar Coltrane). He has a father, Mason, Sr. (Ethan Hawke) whom he sees from time to time, as MJ (as Dad calls him) lives with his mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette, woefully underpaid) and sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater). In the course of Mason Jr.'s life, he goes through two stepfathers (both of whom end up bullying drunks Olivia has to leave), moving to first Houston and then San Marcos as Olivia gets her Masters and begins teaching at the university (which I figure is UTSM). It's as a student of psychology that she meets her second husband Bill (Marco Perella) and as a professor of psychology that she meets her third and final (so far) husband Jim (Brad Hawkins).
It seems that Olivia, despite her education, has poor choosing skills and unaware of her own psychology.
Mason, Jr. turns into a moody, emo-like kid whose hair is always too long and who is too cool for everything. A great talent in photography, he figures he really does not need to do much schoolwork himself and when he does, he does his own take on it. Prime example: when he's ordered to take pictures of a football game. Rather than take shots of what is going on out on the field, he takes pictures of the kicker's net to capture his unique vision (much to the professor's displeasure). He gets drunk, smokes some pot, finally loses his virginity somewhere along the line, breaks up with his girlfriend, and decides to move as far from San Marcos while still going to an in-state university per an agreement with Dad. We end Boyhood with Mason, Jr. off to Sul Ross University in Alpine, TX, where he meets Nicole (Jessi Melcher), a potential love interest.
I would like to point out to Mr. Linklater, who in Boyhood featured OUR beloved state of Texas, that Sul Ross in Alpine is 343.74 miles from San Marcos. The University of Texas at El Paso (my hometown) is 584.3 miles from San Marcos. Therefore, technically speaking, Mason, Jr. DID NOT pick the university furthest away from San Marcos while remaining inside Texas.
Then again, Linklater, like all East Texans, genuinely think Texas ends somewhere in the Big Bend area and that The EP is either in New Mexico or old Mexico itself and that somehow El Paso doesn't actually count as "Texas" (too many Mexicans, perhaps?).
I approached Boyhood with much trepidation. I knew that many of my fellow critics were enraptured by it all, and that there were more than a few of them (and a few regular viewers) who held it as an unimpeachable masterwork, something that will be listed among the Greatest Films Ever Made. I however, worried that I would be stuck watching 18 hours of a boy's life, where all of Hour Four would be taken up by him learning to tie his shoes. It wasn't as bad as all that, but Boyhood for me was not really about this family. It was about the process, about how Linklater got the same people to play the same part for 12 years. That's all well and good, but I found the almost three hour journey with them hard to endure.
I couldn't fathom wanting to spend 12 years with them.
At its core, Boyhood is pretty hollow. The little bits that Mason lives through aren't just rather routine (who hasn't gone bowling with their weekend father) but almost never affect Mason on a personal level (all claims to the contrary). Mason has been the victim of terrible violence by at least one stepfather (Bill, who slipped into barely functional alcoholism) and the other stepfather Jim being a cliché (the tough ex-military who gets a civilian job as a correctional officer and who drinks too, though not with any overt violence). These situations sometimes make someone wary of alcohol, turning people into teetotalers. It doesn't have any impact on Mason, who indulges in booze and pot without any real consequences.
I remember quite well that in Boyhood when he turns fifteen or sixteen, he shows up slightly drunk and high. Olivia says they'll have a talk in the morning, but we never see that talk. We pretty much have to imagine it if we cared to. We get the sense that Mason, Sr. has evolved politically: in a few segments he rants about Bush and the Iraq Intervention then gets his kids to put up Obama signs (tearing down a McCain sign in the process) only to end up marrying a woman whose parents take Senior, Junior, and Sam to church (giving Mason his first Bible) and having Mason's Uncle Jim whisper at Mason, Jr.'s graduation that Senior is in 'enemy territory' and 'four more years' (I figure he meant Obama's reelection). I'm guessing because this is neither openly stated or given enough evidence to support. However, having Uncle Jim (whom I don't remember ever meeting until now) whisper such odd things with little to no context is bizarre to say the least.
I do have admiration for someone who genuinely thought Obama would carry Texas. A quixotic dreamer of the first order.
Other moments in Boyhood are flat-out ridiculous. In one year, we meet Ernesto (Roland Ruiz), another stereotype: a Spanish-speaking, strongly-accented construction worker who is replacing the pipes at Olivia's house. She tells Ernesto that he is very bright and should take up education, particularly night school at the community college. Next time we see him, he's a restaurant manager, speaking perfect and accent-free English. I didn't so much howl with laughter at this but more shook my head in puzzled anger.
A little background. Bless my mother, but she has an accent herself that in thirty-plus years she's never fully shaken off. I don't know how it is possible to go from almost all Spanish-speaking day laborer to flawless accent-free English speaker in the course of three years. I don't think it's possible, or at least I've yet to see it in anyone whose second language is English.
A lot of things happen to Mason, Jr., but they don't add up to anything. He, Sam, and his two step-siblings Mindy (Jamie Howard) and Randy (Andrew Villareal) go to the midnight release party of the Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix book. Well, what of it? Mason doesn't appear to carry this love of Harry Potter into his life, or mention it again.
A lot happens to Mason that isn't mentioned again.
Come to think of it, we don't ever see Mindy or Randy ever again after Olivia flees her abusive husband. Screw those kids, I figure. Let them stay with their drunk and violent dad. Yes, I know she couldn't take them with her, and she does mention that she called Child Protective Services, but I spent the rest of Boyhood wondering what happened to Mindy and Randy. Did Mason and Samantha manage to keep in touch with them? Did they look them up on Facebook (which would have been perhaps fruitless since Mason deleting his account was perhaps THE major turning point in his life given how he talked endlessly about it at one year)? Once they were gone, they were gone.
There is something completely wrong when you spend your time wondering what happened to other characters instead of those you are watching. I genuinely wanted to know what happened to them, but Linklater doesn't think their situation is worthy of interest, moving on to the next scenario.
The same can be said for other moments in Mason's life. He and his girlfriend Sheena (Zoe Graham) sleep together while visiting Sam in Austin (an island of insanity in the Lone Star State). Was it their first time? HIS first time? We really don't know, let alone whether this was real love or just a physical thing given how Sheena the next year had another boyfriend who went to college.
In a nutshell, Boyhood is a series of vignettes about a rather surly, not interesting boy. That is all. Nothing more.
One thing that Boyhood does show is that in 12 years neither child actor ever bothered to take an actual acting lesson. Bless Lorelei Linklater, but she confirms the idea that daughters of directors should not work as actresses in their father's films (see Coppola, Sophia). She was simply dreadful: inarticulate, unconvincing, reciting and whining her way through the film. Coltrane was no better: speaking with nary an idea of how to be convincing as himself. Looking down and letting your hair grow is not a sign of introspection.
The adults were better, particularly Arquette (who wasn't paid what she was worth apparently). She was the only one who was real in all her many flaws (though again, one wonders just how little college professors are paid if she can't afford a home and has to keep moving from place to place). While her inability to pick good men makes one wonder about her intelligence, at least she seemed to have an actual flow to her story (which is more than I can say about Mason, Jr. or Samantha). Hawke, reteaming with Linklater, I figure has some kind of change and his character does eventually accept being an adult with his new wife and daughter.
Here's the question: would Boyhood have worked if we didn't have this '12 years shooting' thing? If they had hired different actors to play Mason and Samantha to show the progression, would Boyhood be as acclaimed as it is now? I personally think it might have been better simply because there would have been a better, more cohesive whole rather than bits and pieces spliced together. Instead of a little, a little there with not much to tie things together, we could have had one large overriding story. What we end up with is a few glimpses of a not-particularly interesting life where very little actually happens.
The one thing that I did admire tremendously was Sandra Adair's beautiful editing, where the scenes flow so effortlessly that one doesn't see the progression until we are in it. We don't know where one year ends and the other begins, which made for a far smoother transition than I would have thought possible. In the editing, I give Boyhood all the praise I can give it. In everything else...
In my final view, I think there will be much praise expected for Boyhood, but in five years I don't see anyone genuinely remembering the film, let alone thinking it among the greats like Battleship Potemkin or Vertigo. I really can't see people rushing to see this year after year, or thinking that it has some great insight into life. I don't think it will be remembered at all, except perhaps for a curious puzzlement as to what all the fuss was about.