Sunday, October 18, 2015

Life is for Living

Film: Boyhood
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.


  1. It is interesting to watch such an organic passage of time onscreen. The ageing is utterly natural, something rarely seen, and is quite mesmerising to watch.

    I thought the Harry Potter scene was a really clever allusion (whether intended or not) to another story that also has a similar ageing trajectory on screen. Like Ellar Coltrane and the rest of the cast, the Harry Potter cast, especially the kids, grew up in front of our eyes.

    I liked this a lot, particularly the quietness of the story. The understatement worked really well, and as you say, showed us life as it is lived: a series of moments, many of which are undramatic yet significant.

    1. It helps a great deal that Ellar Coltrane got comfortable in front of the camera. He ends up being a pretty good actor by the end of the film.

      It's also a benefit that he wasn't world famous as this happened. The Harry Potter reference is well-taken and we did watch those kids grow up, but we also saw them off the screen for those years as well. This didn't happen with Ellar Coltrane, which gives us the picture of just a normal kid going through 12 years of life.

  2. I respect all the work that went into this, and that's why I'd recommend someone see it, but as an overall movie it's just okay. Like you said this is just a series of mostly unconnected scenes. They do set up the stepfather drinking one year and pay it off the next, and there's a callback to the dad having promised the boy his muscle car, but those are few and far between.

    The real reason to watch this is to see the people age. Here's the thing, though - after a few minutes of "wow he's grown" that faded to the background for me and I was left with whatever small event they felt like filming that year.

    Finally, like you mentioned recently with Lincoln, this film should have ended a little sooner. We've watched him and his family grow up over these years. The final scene should have been him driving off to college, striking out on his own from his family. Instead we get another 10 minutes or so of completely new characters he meets at college. I didn't care about them and they added nothing to the movie., and especially added nothing to the ending.

    1. I could see cutting it off before that final scene. I think the idea was to show that Mason will be "okay" now that he is on his own; it's an attempt at closure that might not be as needed as Linklater thought. I don't have a huge problem with it

  3. How I hate this overextended home movie! I suppose Linklater should be credited with conceiving the concept and seeing it through to its conclusion but that's all I took away from this terrible viewing experience.

    It was like a pretentiously bad Lifetime movies that stole ideas from better films, for instance when Mason takes pictures in the desert of inanimate objects it draws echoes of Wes Bentley filming a bag blowing in the wind in American Beauty. But mostly it just trudged along with no incident to break the monotony, I realize that it was suppose to reflect real life but that's not what I watch a movie for.

    I'll admit that neither Arquette nor Hawke are performers that I hold much affection for, and neither impressed me here but I think some of the fault belongs to Linklater for their blah performances. I can't believe Arquette won an Oscar!!! for this nothing piece of work. She has one scene that even means anything otherwise she shows up briefly, non-parents appallingly and is gone again.

    I could have tolerated them if I had cared about the central character but I didn't. I can't blame Linklater for choosing an child actor that grew up to be such a charisma free dull lump of nothing but it is his fault that he made the character such an irritating little pisser. We've invested 12 years in this selfish little bastard's life and by the end he wasn't worth the effort at all.

    What probably kills me the most is that I made a point to seek this out and then stuck with it even though it was boring me to death hoping that there was going to be some sort of payoff at the end. There most definitely wasn't.

    1. Well, we'll disagree on it, then. I looked at this as a reflection on watching my own kids growing up. I wonder what events I've forgotten about will be ones that they remember for their entire lives or that end up shaping them in some way. That's the essence of the film to me, and I think there's something profound there.

  4. Dang. I may have to rewrite my review before it goes up; it's basically identical to yours.

  5. I got Boyhood from the library yesterday and I didn't start it until kind of late, so I inwardly groaned when I saw it was almost three hours. That meant staying up until 1 a.m. (unlikely unless I really really love the movie) or watching the end the next morning.

    I watched the whole thing before going to sleep. I was hooked from the moment that Samantha began singing "Oops, I Did It Again." That was hilarious! (Although being reminded that the song is that old made me feel quite ancient.)

    I bet the time really flies if you see it in a theater!

    If I had remembered that Linklater directed Slacker, I wouldn't have been so concerned.

    Boyhood was a great recent addition to the list.

    1. I think it's the sort of movie that would be added to the list even if it had failed in certain ways because of how it was made and everything that went into it. That it's actually a good movie is just an additional benefit.

    2. I watched the scene where Samantha is singing "Oops, I Did It Again" once more this afternoon. I don't know why that cracks me up so much.

    3. I have to wonder how I would have reacted to this 10 or 20 years ago. I have a daughter who turns 18 in a couple of days, so a lot of Boyhood seemed (and seems) really relevant to me right now.