Boyhood February 14, 2015
If you tried to gun down Boyhood with a silver bullet, it would probably deflect the ammo and knock you down instead. How can you criticize a movie that serves as one of the most ingenious experiments in the history of cinema? You can’t. You don’t want to. Richard Linklater has forged new grounds before — the Before Sunrise trilogy presented romance in a wordy, realistic bundle, Bernie knotted mockumentary impulses with true-crime jolts — but never before has he, or any director for that matter, made something as disparately pragmatic as Boyhood.
You know the backstory: Boyhood was filmed for over 12 years, IFC financed it on a wing-and-a-prayer, and now, it is hailed as being one of the best films of the decade (and by some, ever), with abounding Oscar nominations to prove it. It delivers exactly what you think it will: it directly, and honestly, tells the story of a boy’s childhood, growing from a sprightly six-year-old to a thoughtful collegian before our very eyes. The unremarkability of Boyhood is what makes it so remarkable: aside from a few shitty stepfathers, Mason’s (Ellar Coltrane) experiences are relatable, and if not, understandable, and the film doesn’t sugarcoat that.
So many coming-of-age films would rather play it safe and venture into quirky yet emotive territory, just teary enough to make you go awww at the end but agile enough to trick you into thinking that the humor involved makes it immune to the clichés you’ve come to know. But Boyhood doesn’t aim to be a typical coming-of-age film; it doesn’t even aim to be a typical film. If it isn’t always as captivating as we’d like it to be, it prospers in its momentous moments. The mundane is invigorated by the idea that, just a few minutes ago, the characters sitting in the mundane chateau of life were younger, their opinions and goals shaped completely differently since we last saw them. You cannot say that about any other movie, and if we were to, we’d most likely be referring to a documentary (more specifically, one of the 7 Up! films).
What Linklater does here is far more profound than many would like to admit. “I give Boyhood a B, for boring!” my father exclaimed in an Aunt Linda sort of way when the film finished. When we go to the movies to escape, seeing something gritty and real is far less enticing than traveling into a faraway land where The Avengers are the heroes of the world or a meet-cute suddenly becomes involving and pressing. Seeing our own reflection in a character, a story, or a setting isn’t always fun, The truths a mirror provides can be disconcerting. Even if we haven’t had two alcoholic stepfathers, even if we haven’t moved several times and even if we haven’t received a shotgun, a Bible and a suit from our grandparents on our birthday, all of us, male or female, can relate to Mason because we’ve all grown up. We’ve had that one bad hairdo, that one misunderstanding with our parents, that feeling of doubt when thinking about the future. Maturing isn’t always exciting, but Boyhood points out that our clashing identities make us a whole — our flaws, no matter how different they initially seem, are rooted in the same fears, the same ambiguities. When Mason’s mother (Patricia Arquette) breaks down towards the end of the film, pondering if life really is just a series of unexceptional milestones, we can’t help but ask ourselves the exact same question.
Does the film contain great performances, great writing? Traditionally, no. The actors don’t so much portray their characters as they do fill their shoes. In real-life, Arquette is a mother, Hawke is a father, and Coltrane is a young man with an unknown road ahead of him, and they most likely directly took their own lives into account during the filming process. What we see on the screen is so instinctive that the cloud of illusion clears into a sky of reality; we forget that Linklater, Hawke, and Arquette are all established professionals.
Not a lot happens in Boyhood, but its effect is extensive and weighty. Linklater has made the movie of his career. The 1970s were a time in which films were testing out their newfangled abilities to cover the screens in sex, violence, and unheard of ideas — many consider it to be one of the best eras in movies. But it seems the 2010s are past all that, preferring to test the limits of filmmaking itself. Alejandro González-Iñárritu shot Birdman as if it were photographed in just one take; The Artist made the silent film cool again. Boyhood proves that time should never be a limit when it comes to art. No, Boyhood does not get a “B for boring”; it gets an A for astounding. A