Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is a movie, like most of those made by the late Stanley Kubrick, which is almost inseparable from its critical reception. Both directors, I think, predispose critics to see them as making socially significant statements about the world we live in — and by "we" I mean, of course, those of us who, like the critics themselves, come from the great American middle classes. Thus, although Boyhood has won golden opinions from almost all the critical fraternity, it seems to me that, insofar as it is about boyhood, it is rather a bust. There is nothing in its exiguous story of a boy growing up that we haven’t seen before, or nothing of much intrinsic interest. The interest is, rather, in the movie’s production — its gimmick, if you will — which (in the unlikely event of your not having heard of it) is that it was shot over a twelve-year period and the boy named Mason shown growing up in it is actually growing up before our eyes with the actor, Ellar Coltrane, who plays him.
(Reviewed August 27, 2014)
Everybody seems to think it wonderfully clever of Mr Linklater to have managed this, though François Truffaut did it in a less deliberate way and over multiple pictures with Jean-Pierre Léaud as Antoine Doinel, beginning with Les Quatre Cent Coups in 1959, when his star was only 14, and ending with L’amour en fuit in 1978. Though I admit the device required a certain amount of luck and a lot of patience, I think the fuss about it is a bit overdone. Surely what matters is not the innovation in production, if it is one, but what is done with it, and what is done with it in Boyhood seems to me pretty unremarkable for what it is, though it’s a bit more interesting for what it is not. There seems to me little apart from the experiment in real time to remember about the film. It has virtually no drama — let alone the "melodrama" the critic for Variety praises it for not having — though there are plenty of the ingredients of drama which turn out (apparently) not to be worth pursuing beyond the level of the vignette.
It seems to me that Mr Linklater would have done better to have called the movie "Divorce," since all the real narrative energy and all that produces any lasting impression comes from its portrait of Mason’s gallant single mom, played Patricia Arquette, a three time loser at the marriage game, as told from his point of view. Except that the kid’s eye view doesn’t really add very much to her story, any more than it does to his own. On the contrary, we are kept by it at a distance from her heartbreak as, presumably, Mr Linklater was from his own divorced mother’s romantic life. I can see why he wouldn’t want this eventful emotional turmoil to overshadow young Mason’s Bildungsroman, with which he is principally concerned, but he seems to me to have cleared away the distraction only to make it seem much more interesting offstage than what he is putting onstage.
His focus, that is, is on those familiar milestones of youthful male experience in America in the early 21st century whose chief interest, if it has any for anyone but the one who experiences it, must always be in the inward life, the mental and emotional reaction of the youth himself to the things experienced. But what young Mason may have to say about such things he is for the most part as unable to tell us as the writer-director is. We see him, as we see his mother, mostly from the outside, which one supposes is equally deliberate, a device to flatten the emotional affect. When mom says, "I enjoy making poor life decisions, OK?" you would expect it to be a desperately sad moment, as it doubtless is to her, yet it comes off as no more than a wry one-liner with very little in the way of emotional freightage. Since we have seen only the small part that the child sees of her marital misery, we remain to that extent detached from it and have a hard time feeling with her.
The other problem with the movie is that there is no natural terminus ad quem. Though we expect to see and to some extent do see a series of more or less trivial American rites of passage, passage to what remains a mystery. Partly this is because of the ambiguity of the title, which as others have noticed could apply equally to the boy’s father, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke). For most of his son’s period of physical maturation, dad himself is one of those perpetual adolescents who have become all too depressingly familiar to us in the last few decades. Although the film ends with Mason Junior’s first week at college, there is no reason to suppose he has arrived at a particular moral or emotional destination, such as adulthood, any more than his father must have done at the same age. Again, it is the mother’s life which comes to a turning point when Mason Jr. leaves home, not his own, since we see nothing beyond the change of location to indicate that legal adulthood will be any different for him than legal minority has been.
Refusal to tell that story — the story, that is, of the boy’s becoming a man — may be part of Mr Linklater’s deliberate avoidance of conventional narrative along with conventional narrative arcs and formerly conventional ideas of manhood. It should perhaps be seen as the counterpart of a similar refusal of Mr Hawke, a frequent collaborator of the author’s, along with his character and his director, to grow up. True, in the movie, dad eventually does marry again, have another child and supposedly settle down, though the chief indicator of his putative adulthood is his having traded in his vintage GTO for a minivan. But this change in him takes place, insofar as it does take place, offstage and, like everything else in the picture, is played down lest it give too much conventional shape to the movie’s story-telling. That might create an expectation of a similar definitive accomplishment on the part of Mason Jr. Such traditional expectations tyrannize over our mellow movie-makers of today the way traditional parents tyrannized over their children by expecting them to grow up and assume adult responsibilities. The real idea behind Boyhood is that boyhood need never end.