Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on laptop.
Boyhood took me two tries to get through. I tried to watch it a couple of months ago, got about 25 minutes into it, and just wasn’t feeling like I wanted to continue. I got it from the library again, and have waited on it, the disc sitting on top of a pile of DVDs for almost three weeks. It’s due back at the library tomorrow, and it’s one of the two movies standing between me and recompleting the 1001 Movies list for the year. It wasn’t “now or never,” but it is a case of needing to get it watched or delaying for even longer.
This is evidence that mood can really affect the way we perceive a film. I don’t think I got the point of Boyhood the first time I tried to watch it. In my defense, Boyhood is a slow-starter. Actually, it’s a slow movie all the way around, but that’s really the point. It’s a film that is simultaneously too much for the medium and not nearly enough at the same time. That’s a drawback, certainly, but it’s also the main strength of the film and the concept behind it.
It’s the concept that is the most interesting here. We watch the story of a broken family more or less through the eyes of a child going from six years old to 18 and his first day in college. Director and writer Richard Linklater essentially filmed a series of connected short films that literally trace these characters over the course of 12 actual years of life. The story is fiction, of course, but the actors are the same year over year. There’s no need to find someone who looks like the same kid a couple of years later—it is the same kid a couple of years later. Linklater started the project a dozen years earlier and continued to work on it with the same cast yearly until it was completed.
If nothing else, the way that Boyhood was made merits all of the attention the film has received. This is an enormous project, one of truly massive and impressive vision and scope. In a real sense, it would be similar to actually raising a child, which is basically what happens on camera for the nearly three-hour running time of the film.
What’s most interesting to me is that Boyhood’s plot is really all that I’ve said so far—we watch Mason Evans Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) grow up. He fights with and then doesn’t fight with his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), deals with the up and down relationships of his mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette), and deals with the absence and later bonding with his father Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke). We see Mason fall in love, discover a talent for photography, deal with moving, being bullied, and at one point dealing with Olivia’s drunken and abusive second husband Bill (Marco Perella). But a plot summary more than this is kind of unnecessary. Aside from a few specific moments, we don’t really see a lot of “plot” events. We just see life. It’s helpful that Ellar Coltrane has some physical similarity to Ethan Hawke.
I still think Boyhood is a rough go in the early part of the film, particularly because neither of the kids are very good actors at that point. They both grow into the roles, and Ellar Coltrane in particular is actually pretty good by the end of the film. Both Arquette and Hawke were nominated for Supporting Oscars (Arquette winning), and both were good nominations. I don’t have a firm opinion on Patricia Arquette, but she’s believable all the way through and plays a real person instead of a character type. I think it’s also about the best work I’ve seen from Ethan Hawke, and I tend to like him in general. It was also a nice blast from the past to see Charlie Sexton as Mason Sr.’s friend Jimmy. I’m old enough to remember when Charlie Sexton got some radio play.
The thing is, aside from this, there isn’t a great deal to actually say about Boyhood. It is, in a very real way, life. We see not just the important and critical events, but we do get a sense of the characters and a sense of the life that the people in the family have lived.
I’m a parent. I get it. I look at my kids now and wonder exactly how it happened that they are 17 and 12 instead of the little kids they used to be. I get the frustrated rant from Olivia at the end of the film. This is what I mean when I say that there’s both too much here and not enough. Because much of what we see are just events from Mason’s life, there isn’t a throughline other than Mason grows up. But it’s also not enough, because life is made up of thousands upon thousands of these moments, and the ones we get just aren’t enough.
I think that’s a good thing. One of the keys to being a successful performer is always leaving the audience wanting more, and Boyhood does that. It’s a hell of a concept and Linklater and his team realized it beautifully. If it weren’t a great film, it would still be an artistic triumph. That it’s absolutely worth watching is simply more impressive.
Why to watch Boyhood: It’s the stuff that lives are made of.
Why not to watch: It’s both too much and not enough.