Richard Linklater’s Ordinary Boyhood

Boyhood

There have been those who have proclaimed Boyhood the greatest film of the 21st century.  And there’s a huge faction that believe it’s Richard Linklater’s magnum opus.  Though surely a 2014 Top Ten contender, I’m not even sure it’s the best film of the year thus far, and the Before- trilogy is still Linklater’s crowning achievement in my mind.   I suspect there’s been a bit of the old Group Think at work in delivering this hyperbolic praise.

But Boyhood is still a uniquely constructed film full of winning moments, performances…and flaws.

Filmed over the course of twelve years with the same four leads (two adults – Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, and two children – Ellar Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater) meeting with the writer/director to riff for a few weeks at a time in his sprawling Texas homeland, Boyhood is wholly original in its depiction of the passage of time and aging in the context of a singular work of cinema.

The early years of Mason’s life are depicted with an easy flow and are full of humor and charm.  The kids are naturally cute and precocious, and the director obviously had a blast letting his own daughter cut loose, gifting her classic sassy little girl lines and mannerisms that seemed organic.  I’ve heard him joke in interviews that Lorelei cast herself as soon as she found out her dad had written the role, and based on what is seen on screen in these early scenes, I reckon it’s a true story.  Meanwhile, Mom and Dad aren’t together from the onset, and while they have their own sets of problems, both Hawke and Arquette are so effortlessly likable, you instantly root for them to get their shit together…not so much for the kids’ sake, but for their own.

As the film moves into middle childhood and the teen years, it starts to plod a bit, and some of the clichéd and overwrought plot mechanics Linklater uses (Doh! Mom marries not one, but two alcoholics!) take away from the film’s realism.  It seems to get stuck there in middle school, but before we know it, Mason is a moody, mumbling high schooler…until he starts to drink and try soft drugs where Linklater attempts to recapture some of the old rambling magic that made the aimless philosophy of Slacker, Dazed and Confused, and Waking Life so enjoyable.  There are times, though, Mason comes across as so lackadaisical you want to shake him to wake him up.  He never really stands up for anything, though he does lash out eventually at stepdad number two to get off his back, and he does take a shining to the art of photography.  Linklater comically channels this feeling of wanting to shake (perhaps shape?) his protagonist through pep talks from his photography teacher and first boss (at least the kid gets a job much like I did at that age as a busboy/dishwasher with fry-cook aspirations).

The film is at its worst when Linklater insists on time-stamping moments with near constant nods to pop culture, technology and occasional partisan politics.  It sometimes seemed obtrusive and unnecessary (the Harry Potter sequence could’ve been completely exorcised) and often took me out of the moment or disrupted the flow of the film, though I enjoyed the philosophical Facebook whining because it at least fit into the personality Mason was experimenting with donning.  While the younger generation that documents their lives digitally this way and lived parallel to these moments might find the time-stamping more meaningful, I felt it robbed the film of an opportunity for some sense of timelessness and Mason being the “everyboy” archetype.  There are other awkward moments conceived with a good heart that come across as forced, like the later restaurant scene where someone from the periphery of Mom’s past comes up to thank her for the apparently life-changing advice she casually gave him in an earlier throw-away scene.

The film is at its best, however, when Linklater allows ample time for his main characters to breathe and just walk and talk.  In the scenes where Dad is trying to connect with the kids, and especially in his one-on-one time with Mason doling out advice, Ethan Hawke is at his Ethan Hawkiest channeling Linklater’s great writing, and the realism captured here feels as right as it did in the Before- trilogy.  And while Hawke gets the best elongated scenes, Arquette gets the most poignant lines.  Her character feels the most fully fleshed out, and it’s fascinating to watch Arquette come into her own over the course of the epic filming, emotively as an actress, and physically in her graceful aging.  At one point, after ripping the kids from an abusive home only to have her petulant daughter complain about changing schools, she yells, “I’m doing the best I can!”  You believe it.  And then near the end, musing on an empty nest and the passage of life’s milestones, she breaks down while Mason is packing for college and cries, “I thought there would be more than this.”

That heartbreaking line defines the experience.  In his attempt to depict the most realistic facsimile of an ordinary boy’s life, Linklater sequesters himself and his characters in a world where there is nothing more beyond the ordinary (though there’s plenty of juvenile musing on the fantastic).  You feel for Arquette’s character when she says it, and in proper meta fashion, I the viewer, was left wondering the same about the story.

Linklater refreshingly ends the film in true Linklater fashion with Mason and some new college friends wandering harmlessly stoned through the beautiful Big Bend national park.  There Mason muses with a cute girl about the moment – and we realize, with a melancholic sigh, the moment where there is something more than this is a moment we won’t experience in this film.  Just like life, I guess.

Written by David H. Schleicher

 

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12 comments on “Richard Linklater’s Ordinary Boyhood

  1. Let’s rank Linklater, a director who has a distinct wheelhouse that has produced some memorable work, where everything else is completely disposable:

    The Before- Trilogy – 9/5/10
    Dazed and Confused – 9/10
    Slacker – 9/10
    Waking Life – 9/10
    Boyhood – 8.5/10
    Bernie – 8/10

    School of Rock – 5/10
    The Bad News Bears – 4/10
    Suburbia – 3/10
    The Newton Boys – 3/10

    Haven’t seen: A Scanner Darkly, Me and Orson Welles, Fast Food Nation, Tape

  2. walt walker says:

    I’m really looking forward to seeing Boyhood. The idea of filming over 12 years with the same actors is something I’ve never heard of anyone else doing. Maybe Linklater is not the first to try something like this but if he is, that plus The Before Trilogy, and films like Slacker, Dazed and Confused, Waking Life, and Tape, make him, in my mind, if not the most important film-maker of our generation, then certainly one of the most interesting.

    I can forgive him for the mediocrity of School of Rock, BNB, Suburbia (very disappointing), and the Newton Boys. When he’s not doing something new and different, his lack of passion for the process seems to manifest itself in a sub-par product.

    • Hmmm…I think Linklater is a unique and thoughtful voice for our generation….not sure I would claim he’s the most important – he’s never really branched too far from that aimless Texas hipsterdom except in the Before films. Slacker and Waking Life are great fun to watch and think about, and Dazed and Confused is one of those effortless films that perfectly captures a pleasing mood and place in time and that I am compelled to watch anytime it’s on or mentioned. It wasn’t until the third Before film that I realized the totality of those films’ impact – they really are something special. Boyhood tries to recapture that, mostly in successful fashion but not entirely.

      Kinda like Soderbergh, though, it’s a shame he’s tarnished his output with some sell out duds.

  3. Dave, as I’m sure I’ve mentioned on here before, I’m a huge Linklater fan. Something about his best films, and even some of his middling work to some extent, speak to me in ways that most other films don’t. The only film of his that I haven’t seen is “Fast Food Nation.” Not even his presence could get me over my aversion to all those “What’s REALLY on your plate?” documentaries and dramas that have been coming out over the past several years. Anyway, here’s my spin on his films:

    Slacker 9/10
    Dazed and Confused 10/10
    “Before” Trilogy 10/10
    Suburbia 5/10
    The Newton Boys 3/10
    Waking Life 9/10
    Tape 6/10
    School of Rock 7/10
    Bad News Bears 4/10
    A Scanner Darkly 3/10
    Me and Orson Welles 6/10
    Bernie 7/10

  4. Prakash J says:

    Fabulously deconstructed. Your review makes me want to watch Boyhood.

    Linklater’s claim to fame (at least here in India) is the Before trilogy. It worked for me as a trilogy because I saw them in quick succession. However, I wonder if I would have liked them as much had I seen them individually. I must confess I haven’t seen any of his other works and might just catch up with Boyhood.

    I’ll rate his Before trilogy an 8/10.

    • I often wondered how well Linklater traveled. Most of his work (spare for maybe Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly) outside of the European flavored Before- Trilogy is very insular and speaks to very American experiences. Boyhood, though taking place wholly in Texas, has that laissez-faire, formless realism of a European film…it might travel as well as The Before- Trilogy in that respect.

  5. Arti says:

    I may have the chance to go to a special preview of Boyhood in the next two weeks. So will delay reading your review until I’ve seen it. Looking forward to discussing with you.

    • Looking forward to your always astute analysis!

    • Arti says:

      It’s an extraordinary telling of an ordinary childhood. While the 12-year filming may be groundbreaking, it’s the resulting effects and implications of such a method that’s even more significant and meaningful. I was kept to the edge of my seat watching this seemingly ordinary story. Very moved at times, esp. with the character of mom Olivia. I agree with you that there are parts that drag a bit, but for me, by that time I’m already too involved in the characters’ lives to demand extraordinary adventures. Life is, yes often, uneventful. But, glad it finishes off with a hopeful end.

  6. Sam Juliano says:

    “Though surely a 2014 Top Ten contender, I’m not even sure it’s the best film of the year thus far, and the Before- trilogy is still Linklater’s crowning achievement in my mind.”

    Nah David, BOYHOOD is absolutely, positively his supreme achievement. It IS his best film by a long shot, it IS the best film of 2014 easily and it IS one of the true masterpieces of the new millennium. No group thinking here, just unanimous agreement on a film masterpiece.

    Boyhood 10/10
    The Bad News Bears 8/10
    The School of Rock 9/10
    Dazed and Confused 7/10
    Slackers 7/10
    Waking Life 8/10
    Before Movies 6/10
    Bernie 8/10
    Suburbia 6/10
    Me and Orson Welles 7/10
    The Newton Boys 3/10
    Fast Food Nation 5/10

    Excellent review as always!

    • Well, I think we can agree we loved this film, just how much is where we differ. Some moments have lingered for me, others still annoy when thought of…but hey, that’s art! Right?

      I’m a bit surprised at your 6/10 ranking for the Before- Trilogy. To me, those are his masterpieces, but maybe that’s because I could relate to the characters and ideas more in those films than those in Boyhood (it might be relative to one’s point of view on life).

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