If you know that Boyhood has been rapturously received as a revolutionary work in the annals of American filmmaking, it is almost sure to disappoint you. I know this, because I saw it two weeks after it opened and it disappointed me, even though I knew I was seeing something no other filmmaker had ever really tried before and that the experiment was an undoubted success.
Boyhood is a portrait of an American kid coming of age in Texas over a period of 12 years, using the same actors growing older in real time from 2002 to 2013. It is a unique effort to bring the literary genre known as Bildungsroman to film through the character of Mason, who matures from a dreamy 6-year-old child to a teenager on the cusp of manhood who wants to know what life is for.
Mason, as embodied by Ellar Coltrane, ripens before our eyes, as does his older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater). We see them grow, literally, over the course of the movie’s 2 hours and 40 minutes. Such a thing has never been done before in a fictional movie; the four lead actors and the director and crew would assemble for a few days every year to film it. So it’s an extraordinary achievement, all the more so because the writer-director Richard Linklater is so offhanded about it. He does not do anything to call attention to its groundbreaking qualities. Boyhood just happens.
The problem with Boyhood—as is often true of teenagers and is almost always true of Bildungsroman stories—is that the questions Mason raises are trite and his existential struggles are banal. When the movie is not about Mason, however, it’s unusual and brilliant—and sociologically fascinating. For Linklater shows us just how commonplace the chaos and impermanence that characterize so many American boyhoods and girlhoods have become.
As this cute, round-faced boy turns into a strapping near-matinee idol, his mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette) goes from being a white-trash-dropout-divorcée to a feminist academic teaching at a community college—all the while making terrible choices in men. Olivia moves her son and daughter around and about Texas in pursuit of her own career and personal life. Linklater uses her journey to offer a nimble portrait of American middle-class life in our day, as the family moves from a small town to Houston to a McMansion suburb to a money-pit ranch house bought in a short sale after the financial meltdown.
Everywhere she goes, her children manage to make lives for themselves; it is only Olivia who cannot find her place. She is foolish, and she knows she’s foolish, and yet she can’t help acting foolishly. At the same time, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke) goes from being a gadabout would-be musician delivering lectures in bowling alleys to his little kids about the evils of George W. Bush to a middle-aged bourgeois working for an insurance company and married a second time into a nice, church-going, gun-toting Republican family.
Both the parents are vividly limned and beautifully played by Arquette and Hawke under unprecedented conditions for actors: They maintained the integrity of Olivia and Mason Sr. and do not shy away from the profound weaknesses of these deeply flawed but well-meaning people throughout the 12 years of filming. The same is true of the enchantingly deadpan Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter, who is the movie’s breakout performer.
The problem with Boyhood, alas, is the boy.
Coltrane is an amazingly natural presence onscreen, but Mason is by far the least interesting character in the movie. In part, it’s the classic David Copperfield problem; this is Linklater’s own life story lightly fictionalized, and, as was true of Dickens and his autobiographical hero, Linklater is a far better observer of the behavior of others than he is a keen analyst of himself. He’s a fascinating person in real life—a talented Texas jock who suddenly found himself obsessed with novels and movies when he hit his teenage years and decided to make himself literate in both before taking up filmmaking and hitting it big with his independent feature Slacker in 1991.
But the teenaged Mason lacks the drive and ambition of his creator. He takes up photography and is lectured by a high school teacher for failing to follow the necessary path to learn his craft, but that artistic interest seems grafted onto the vague and affectless kid we see before us. Mason seems pretentious and trite, and we tire of him 20 minutes before the movie ends.
Nonetheless, you really should see Boyhood, especially now that I’ve lowered your expectations.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.