Boyhood: Good Film with a Dubious Hook

BOYHOOD (2014)
Directed by Richard Linklater
IFC Films, 164 minutes, R (language, drug use, sexual innuendo)
* * *

This could be a parental mantra: "They grow up so fast. I wish I could hold onto their childhood." In Boyhood, Richard Linklater does exactly that. Its central story is that of a boy, Mason, Jr., from the ages of 7 to 18.

By now I'm sure you've heard of its unique hook: Linklater literally allows us to see two kids grow up. Mason, Jr. is Ellar Coltrane and Linklater's daughter, Lorelei, plays his sister. The idea for Boyhood came to Linklater a dozen years ago and he had the foresight to shoot a little bit of his film each year. What we see on screen is the actual physical development of individuals as they progress from childhood into adolescence.

Upon this hook Linklater imposes an external story of a very American phenomenon: broken families. He also filmed his other actors over time, with Ethan Hawke as Mason Sr. and Patricia Arquette as Olivia, the mother. Mason Sr. is impetuous and immature, a blue-collar guy who drifts to Alaska with dreams of being a musician but no plan for making anything happen, whereas Olivia thinks there has to be more to life than a busted down house in small town Texas. They are the classic mad-for-each-other-can't-live-together couple that embodies the old pop song "Jackson" and its line "We got married in a fever/Hotter than a pepper sprout…." Divorce comes when Mason Jr. is just seven and Samantha nine. The film also explores parental journeys and choices, good and bad. As such we also see them "grow up," with Olivia's path to becoming a psychology professor an especially perilous and bittersweet one.

As the title Boyhood suggests, much of the film focuses on Mason. Jr., especially the various ways in which he reconnects and disconnects with his father. We follow Mason, Jr. and his mother from one small town to another, then to Houston, San Marcos, and to his first day at college, with Mason, Sr. making quintessential absentee dad appearances. (Hawke, as usual, is amazing; Arquette, as usual, is not.) Linklater also makes judicial use of period music–including Dylan, Wings, Cat Power, Cold Play, and Arcade Fire–to establish time periods, moods, and shifting tastes. At his best, Linklater simply nails childhood–awkward attempts to bond on a camping trip, a teen girl's embarrassment at being ferried to school by her mother, adolescent angst of trying to figure out one's identity, and a deliciously funny and cringe-worthy scene in which dad tries to explain the birds and the bees to his grossed out offspring.

But we must ask: Does Linklater's hook work?  Is it verisimilitude or a clever con job? The most judicious answer would be to take the middle path. It's cool to see Ellar Coltrane, Lorelei Linklater, Hawke, and Arquette age before our eyes, but the film is not telling an actual story–it's a script, not real life, no matter how 'typical' the themes might be. This means that the central drama is ultimately manipulative. We are encouraged to imagine children in real-time and in real jeopardy, but only the first is true–the kids are alright.

This raises several more questions. If all Linklater wants to do is tell the story of American childhood, why go to all this bother? Why not just use various actors to show kids at different ages and use makeup on Mom and Dad? (We know the magic makeup artists can achieve, plus Coltrane looks so different from his little boy self that I had to be reminded it was the same person.) Does the movie have to be two hours and forty-four minutes long? The story is a powerful one worthy of viewing on its own merits, but do we see anything new? Is the movie as long as it is because we are ultimately viewing pieces of Linklater's obsession, rather than his vision?

I really liked this film, but I think too many reviewers and viewers have focused on the hook instead of the product. It's a good movie, but no masterpiece. And, yes, it's more artifice than art.  Rob Weir

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